Photo depicting people watching video or searching social media on smart phones with a cloud of likes, hearts, and emojis rising from the devices.

Weekend Reads: What Social Media Is Doing to Us

by Kevin Schofield

This weekend we have a pair of studies looking at the impact of social media on both our personal health and the health of our democracy.

The first study, from the University of Bath in the U.K., investigates the connection between greater use of social media and poorer mental health. It’s been well-documented in past studies that the two are correlated, but there hasn’t been definitive proof of a causal relationship — or if there is, which causes the other. It may be that use of social media negatively affects mental health. Alternatively, people with poorer mental health may be drawn into higher use of social media sites. To tease out the underlying dynamic, the researchers devised a specific intervention: asking people to take a one-week break from social media, and measuring the subsequent change in their mental health.

The research team recruited 154 people and then divided them equally into a “control” group and a group that they asked to stop using social media for seven days. They measured participants’ overall well-being, frequency of depressive symptoms, and frequency of anxiety symptoms before and after the one-week break from social media, using standard diagnostic tools in common use by health professionals. They also gave the participants tools to use on their web browser and phone to keep track of time spent on social media, and to block the social media apps and sites for the abstaining group. 

The researchers found that after one week, the group taking a break from social media had higher overall mental well-being and lower measurements of depression and anxiety. 

This report alone is not enough to declare that social media is bad for us, in part because there are some weaknesses in the research study. The researchers recruited people who were willing to take a one-week break from social media, so there could be a “selection bias” in that the people who volunteered might already have suspected that they had a problem with social media. Also, one week is a relatively short period of time, so they didn’t gather any information on what the long-term effects are (or what happens when someone jumps back in after a one-week break). Finally, the demographics of their participants skewed heavily toward white women in higher education —— an artifact of running a study within a university, something that commonly happens with academic research because of the easy access to the “captive audience” in residence there.

The researchers found some hints that different social media sites might have varying effects on mental health: for example, both Twitter and TikTok seemed to affect symptoms of depression, while TikTok was the only site tested that seemed to impact symptoms of anxiety. 

The researchers conclude their report by mentioning that several of the participants emailed them during the course of the study “alluding to an intention to change their relationship with social media.” This, they suggest, raises the question as to how long of a break is required for individuals to recognize for themselves if social media is negatively affecting them, enough to motivate themselves to make a change.

Taking a One-Week Break from Social Media Improves Well-Being, Depression, and Anxiety: A Randomized Controlled Trial

The second study was conducted by a group of researchers in Germany, the U.K., and Australia, looking at a question that burns brightly for many of us at this moment in time: Is social media good or bad for democracy? It is a complicated question, for which there is no simple measure. In the early days of social media, sites such as Facebook and Twitter were pitched as pro-democracy: They connected more people together, “disintermediated” the traditional gatekeepers of information, and gave us direct access to a broader set of information and viewpoints. But in practice — at least in some nations — it seems to have a corrosive force, factionalizing people by political viewpoint, amplifying and hardening negative feelings toward other groups, spreading disinformation, and creating “echo chambers” that insulate people from information and views that might broaden their perspective. But this isn’t an either/or situation; it’s “all of the above.” Social media can do all of these things at the same time, depending on an individual’s choices and context. Social media also doesn’t work in isolation; it might have different impacts in democracies compared to autocratic nations, or in times of war, economic crisis, or pandemic. 

And as with the first research paper, this one also wrestles with whether the apparent connection between social media and political attitudes and behaviors is just correlation or whether there is a causal relationship. 

The researchers conducted what’s known as a “meta-review” of the previous research on the topic. They found 499 articles related to media use and political behavior and analyzed them for patterns related to their central question: Is social media use beneficial or detrimental to society. They came up with a list of the 10 most-cited variables used to gauge the health of a political system, five positive and five negative. The positive ones were trust, knowledge, participation, diverse exposure, and political expression; the negative ones were hate, polarization, populism, network homophily, and misinformation. They then tallied up the research papers that referred to each of these variables, noting whether the research indicated that social media led to beneficial or detrimental changes for democracy. 

They found one clear win: Social media improves participation. But there were six on the other side where social media was associated with detrimental changes: trust, plus all five of the negative variables. Three were a mixed bag, slightly more positive than negative: knowledge, diverse exposure, and political expression.

Bar graphs depicting the associations with 10 democratic prinicples.
Figure 2: Distribution of directions of associations from the full sample, reported for various political variables. Insets show exemplary the distribution of associations with trust, news exposure, polarization, and network homophily over the different methods used for their measurement. Figure sourced from “Digital Media and Democracy: A Systemic Review of Causal and Correlational Evidence Worldwide, 2021.”

The report dives into all 10 variables, explaining in more detail exactly the kinds of effects that have been observed. It also looks at the studies on a country-by-country basis and appears to show that the negative effects are concentrated in countries that score higher on an index of democratic principles, compared to more authoritarian countries — though this is heavily influenced by where the studies have been done (and where authoritarian regimes have allowed such studies to be conducted and published). And as the study points out, “What is considered beneficial or detrimental will, at least partly, hinge on the political system in question: intensifying populism and network homophily may benefit a populist regime or a populist politician but undermine a pluralistic democracy.” This is a situation in which the causal relationship may run backwards: The political institution drives social media, rather than social media shaping the institution. Or, perhaps more likely, it’s cyclical: They both drive each other in turn, spiraling either up toward democracy or down into autocracy.

Figure depicting associations by country with USA having the highest bar out of all of the countries.
Figure 5c: Data and variables in trust, knowledge, participation, diversity exposure, and expression, in absolute numbers of reported associations and sorted along the Liberal Democracy Index. Figure sourced from “Digital Media and Democracy: A Systemic Review of Causal and Correlational Evidence Worldwide, 2021.”

The researchers particularly emphasize one of the 10 variables: trust in political institutions. The research makes it clear that social media erodes trust in institutions, which is “the glue that keeps democracies together.”

Is social media bad for democracy? Not entirely, but in some important aspects, it appears to tilt heavily in that direction. However, that doesn’t mean we should abandon it (despite the apparent benefits it would have for our personal mental health), at least not yet. First, we need to have an honest conversation about both the positive and negative impacts on democracy, and what can be done to amplify the positive and reduce the negative. Some of that responsibility falls on the people who own and operate the social media sites, but it equally falls on all of us to join in that conversation with a willingness to wrestle with the complexities and trade-offs in the relevant design and policy decisions. For example, allowing Donald Trump back on to Twitter will increase participation, but it will increase misinformation, polarization, and hate while undermining trust in institutions. Also, algorithms that fill up our news feeds with “more of the same” articles that we’re likely to click on, may increase individuals’ time spent participating, but it will also reduce diverse exposure and probably increase network homophily. 

And while we’re trying to find a better path, we need to keep our eyes open for the dishonest actors: Those who benefit from increased polarization, misinformation, populism, and an erosion of trust in democratic institutions. We can assume that they will continue to act in their own best interests, to the detriment of the rest of us.

Digital Media and Democracy: A Systematic Review

Kevin Schofield is a freelance writer and publishes Seattle Paper Trail. Previously he worked for Microsoft, published Seattle City Council Insight, co-hosted the “Seattle News, Views and Brews” podcast, and raised two daughters as a single dad. He serves on the Board of Directors of Woodland Park Zoo, where he also volunteers.

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