The mobile phone scrolling posture – Head down, finger on the mobile screen, and micro-expressions on the face – is an iconic human posture. That’s our social media posture. Is it iconic enough? Yes. 3.3 billion people use social media on their mobile phones (January 2019 stats). This brings us to a new field of study called cyberpsychology and we are just starting to understand how social media affects us psychologically.
There is a lot of opinion-based talk on how social media affects us, especially how social media affects mental health.
A convenient way to conceptualize social media is by defining it as a digital framework which enables “a way for individuals to maintain current relationships, to create new connections, to create and share their own content, and, in some degree, to make their own social networks observable to others.” (given by Jeffrey W. Treem, Stephanie L. Dailey, Casey S. Pierce, Diana Biffl)
People use Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, 9Gag, Snapchat, and Twitter (sorry, G+) to rant, show-off, advocate social justice, discuss politics, give ground-breaking opinions, etc. Wait. That’s not true, is it?
The majority of social media users spend time scrolling and consuming content with minimal social interactions. The engagement rate (likelihood of a person interacting with a post) is as low as 0.09% on Facebook, 1.6% on Instagram, and 0.048% on Twitter. This interaction is a baseline for any social activity over and above interactions with closed chat groups. A fraction of these tiny percentages account for all human-generated likes, hearts, retweets, comments, shares, status messages, posts, etc. These social media activity statistics set the baseline to understand active and passive social media use.
Active social media use: People actively interact with other people on social media.
Passive social media use: The majority of social media activity is scrolling through feeds and consuming content.
Active and passive social media use is a practical classification to understand how social media affects us psychologically. As with most scientific investigations, this too needs to be explored based on certain boundary conditions like user activity.
People use social media actively or passively for a number of reasons – instant gratification, relaxed entertainment, keeping in touch with known people and nurturing existing relationships, seeking validation, protecting self-esteem, an opportunity to create a new version of themselves, getting in touch with new people, voicing an opinion, escaping for existing problems, procrastination, boredom, information consumption, making new friends, etc. And they use various sites for that – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, WeChat, etc.
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Research on 10,000+ Icelandic adolescents (2019) shows that passive social media use is associated with a self-reported increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms and active social media use is associated with a reduction in depressive and anxiety symptoms. They also found that passive use by women is more strongly associated with poorer mental health. These effects were seen even when the amount of time spent on social media, self-esteem, offline peer support, and poor body image are taken into account. Active social media use did not predict emotional distress either. However, an Icelandic population, like any national demographic, can’t be generalized to represent the entire digital culture.
An online survey research study on 702 American Reddit recruits found a similar directional influence in 2016. An increase in passive social media use was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms and an increase in active social media use was associated with a decrease in depressive symptoms. This study used stricter statistical and measurement tools while controlling for sociodemographic factors.
Active social media users often share stories, opinions, discuss issues, and converse. This may stem from a lower baseline anxiety level. This does not indicate that passive social media users do not have stories or opinions to share, their choice to not share may stem from a variety of other psychological markers such as fear of judgment, ridicule, or the fear of showing vulnerabilities. This is also compounded by the need to counter the fear of missing out (FOMO). Research shows that FOMO and social comparison plays a role in linking depression, negative self-perceptions, and passive social media use. Not being aware of the digital culture for someone born in the digital culture can be an opportunity to feel like an out-group member in a cohort one is born in. For example, just having a phone with you can function as a security blanket even if you don’t use it. Researchers say that it buffers against feelings of social exclusion and can be a coping mechanism for social stress & anxiety.
More research is needed to explore these possibilities and their implications for treating mental health issues, so we’ll have to wait. You can use these emotional regulation techniques if you experience negative emotions in the context of social media.
One novel line of research is analyzing the text in social media activities like tweeting. Researchers have managed to extract the symptoms of depression or deteriorating mental health by using machine learning tools on textual data. This line of research shows the value of understanding text to identify the early signs of depression. But that’s not it. This approach confounds the active vs. passive social media use findings. If depression can be detected through textual activity on social media, it is by definition generated by an active user. There is more to be explored here.
We don’t know if early signs are visible via text updates because the users are active with a trend toward passive use – the sample with clinically valid depression may no longer exist on social media with the same usage characteristics. Comparing the texts for clinically diagnosed patients, people who show early signs, and people in remission might yield richer data on mental health and social media use.
There is another way to classify social media behavior/interactions: Positive & Negative social media behavior in the context of depression. Positive behavior can improve well-being, alleviate depressive symptoms and negative behavior can worsen depression, anxiety, or life satisfaction. Negative social behavior and cognition like sharing risky content, social comparison, etc. is linked to deteriorating well-being. Positive behavior such as seeking out entertainment, creative content, and nurturing relationships has no negative impact (neutral activity) or can buffer against mental health issues. Social comparison is notorious in real life and online. However, it’s not all bad. There is some evidence to show that social comparison based on ability can hamper psychological well-being and social comparison based on opinions can improve well-being.
One might wonder how personality affects the type of social media activity. Data from 20,000 people from 20 countries shows that there is a mild relationship between personality and social media use. Researchers found a number of correlations between specific types of social media use and personality traits. Extroverts tend to use social media to consume information as well as socializing. Emotionally stable people tend to use social media for most activities but with lesser frequency. People with neurotic traits (prone to anxiety, mood swings, envy, etc.) tend to spend more time on social media to socialize and consume information. However, these results are not straight forward when individual differences are accounted for. Research shows that the relationship between social media use and extraversion is non-linear, and possibly, U-shaped.
Personality and behavior is also intertwined with the selfie posting culture. The tendency to be warm and friendly (agreeableness) and be social (extraversion) is associated with commenting and liking other people’s selfies. Being conscientious and neurotic is associated with a tendency to get involved in other people’s responses to their selfies. People (especially females) who are conscientious, agreeable, neurotic, or introverted are likely to experience problematic social media use.
The same study employed the uses and gratification framework to understand why people use social media. They found that those who exhibit a degree of problematic social media use are motivated to be on social media (Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram) to keep in touch with friends, meeting new people, display or create a more popular version of themselves, gain entertainment, or pass time. Gender differences also emerge from the existing literature. Women exhibit higher problematic social media use than men and use social media to maintain existing relationships while men use it to meet new people and potential short-term mates. Younger people (the current youth/teens and young adults), on the whole, have a broader set of motivations and types of social media activities as compared to older people.
Are we onto something here? It appears that the amount of time someone spends on social media doesn’t necessarily predict poor mental health, it’s only the activity type which matters. Considering how fresh the research is and the fact that no cohort exists today whose social media use can be assessed for lifetime influences, it’s too early to blame the type of social media activity for poor mental health. One example of the problems in finding a causal link is how participants are recruited. In a study on Korean students who were recruited via advertisement fliers across a university showed that depressed individuals were less likely to have social media social engagement like location tagging and Facebook friends. The mode of recruiting may create a selection or survivorship bias where those extremely passive in real-life might not participate.
A systematic research review paper from 2019 suggests that the time spent on social media, the type of user activity, the investment in social media use, and the level of social media addiction are associated with psychological distress, depression, and anxiety. A review from 2014, that is up until 5 years ago, concluded that there is no evidence that social media use causes depression; but many possibilities exist where there are feedback loops between the two.
Social media use can create many opportunities for jealousy and comparing with other peers only to judge oneself on that comparison. Social media use also permits modifying self-presentation to a great extent. We see this behavior as typing and retyping a status message on Facebook or taking time to consciously think about how and what to reply after reading a comment notification.
A longitudinal study which analyzed Facebook user activity (active and passive not separated) found that an increase in gifting Facebook likes, link clicks, and status updates were negatively associated with well-being. But, a systematic review concludes that social media use and its impact on well-being is both positive and negative. This may reflect on the type of activity. After analyzing the experience of social media users, some evidence for mixed-effects emerges. Posting about daily activities led to an improvement in mood and self-esteem and venting or expressing feelings led to a worsened mood and lower self-esteem, even increased paranoia. This is in line with a moderately controversial notion that catharsis can make things worse. Rumination and venting can bring undesirable thoughts and feelings into awareness which may continue to negatively impact one’s mood. Active social media use may stem from a tendency to participate and engage with a community – which is linked to an increase in subjective well-being.
One potent mechanism in how social media use is associated with depression is given by Yvonne Kelly, Afshin Zilanawala, Cara Booker, and Amanda Sacker. The study analyzed social media activity and its role in depression in a nationally representative UK Millenial sample of 11,000 adolescents (1:1 male-female ratio).
They found 4 prominent mechanisms which tie depression and social media use together – poor quality of sleep, online harassment/cyberbullying, poor self-esteem, and body image issues. There were no gender differences in these pathways which link the two.
These factors form multiple feedback loops between events and experiences in real life and digital life. The authors do not claim that social media use causes depression. They only identify consistent pathways which link the two and these pathways may function as causal factors in individual clinical cases.
In parallel to these findings, researchers have also uncovered other pathways between problematic social media use and depression/poor mental health. Loneliness and fatigue can predict long-term problematic use and problematic use is also linked to loss of interest and concentration. However, when researchers tried to isolate the contribution of problematic use by controlling other related variables, they found no relationship between depression and social media use. Expanding upon this baseline, there is some evidence that shows personality traits like antagonism (hostility) and negative affectivity (negative thinking, poor self-concept) increase the risk of problematic social media use.
For teenage girls, frequent social media use can reduce life-satisfaction, happiness, and overall well-being because of cyberbullying and a disrupted sleep cycle. This effect is significantly lower in teenage boys. The frequency of use (apart from addiction), in isolation, may have no effect on well-being.
Experimental studies in this area are rare. One simple experiment showed that asking people to limit social media use to 30 mins a day (10 mins for Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat individually) can improve well-being by reducing depression, anxiety, loneliness, and the fear of missing out. The takeaway is actionable – limit social media activity to 30 minutes a day and you’ll see an improvement in your overall well-being in about 3 weeks.
These studies can tell us one thing – the relationship between mental health and social media use is complex and depends on many dozens of factors that interact uniquely.
When it comes to a particular issue like social anxiety, research suggests that online social anxiety is less intense as compared with social anxiety in real life for those suffering from social anxiety.
Poor sleep and social media have a confounding relationship with one another where we don’t really know if there is a clear cause and effect. For 11-15-year-old females, social media stress appears to increase sleep latency (time needed to fall asleep) and daytime sleepiness. This effect was not observed in males. For students, smartphone overuse is linked to sleep problems, anxiety, and depression. Students tend to have a variety of first-time stressors such as gaining financial independence, domestic independence, dating, skill development, academic demands, and the thirst to have fun. Social media use and student mental health is a complex network of various factors.
Nighttime social media scrolling can disturb sleep via an interaction between 2 channels – social cognition about social media content and the effect of lit screens. Social cognitions include thinking about social information like photos of friends having fun, or a status update on social issues, or reading comment gatherings. In this study, the type of content or blue light filters didn’t individually affect sleep quality but their interaction did.
One parallel between social media behavior and physical life behavior is how users respond to the influence of their peers. For example, they are more likely to hit the like button on posts which have already amassed some likes – likes beget likes just like votes beget vote. Peer endorsement plays a role in modifying the behavior of adolescents.
Memes and Well-being
So far, we haven’t looked at the connection between memes and mental health (although, sharing memes is an active and positive type of social media use). Many of us enjoy relatable memes. These create an opportunity for self-reflection (and laughing at oneself), which, at the very least, help us to ease symptoms of poor mental health. Research also shows that viewing memes can help people manage burnout and cope with stress. The meme sharing culture is virtually omnipresent and fosters a collective human identity. Wholesome and AWW-inducing content can make us feel good and sharing these moments improve our psychological state. It also helps us develop a small people-meme network within a larger culture.
If we apply the adage “You are what you eat” to social media, we get the notion that the internet gives us a regurgitated version of what we feed it. Emotional contagion (feeling emotions similar to other peoples’ emotions by witnessing their emotions) can spread via social networks. Emotional contagion theories tell us that seeing negative posts in the newsfeed can make us create negative posts and seeing positive posts can make us create positive posts.
It’s not always the frequency and duration that matters the most. The type of social media activity and how people deal with social media stress can affect mental health more.
Social media does not necessarily harm mental health. Its effects can be positive and negative based on what a user does on social media.
Bad psychological effects of social media emerge through negative social cognitions like social comparison, FOMO and associated cognitions like poor self-esteem and poor body image.
Good psychological effects of social media emerge through positive behaviors like seeking out entertainment, sharing creative content, nurturing relationships, seeking out like-minded people, etc.
The type of content in your newsfeed can affect the type of content you post on social media.
Personality affects a user’s type of social media activity.
Loneliness, fatigue, cyberbullying, poor sleep, social media stress, social exclusion, etc. are some evidence-based pathways which link depression and social media.
Not all active social media use is good and not all passive social media is bad. However positive-active use is more likely to be good for you and active-negative use is more likely to be bad for you.
Venting, ranting, and posting emotionally loaded updates can lower self-esteem & mood but posting daily activities can improve your self-esteem & mood.
The relationship between psychological well-being and social media use is complex and non-linear with mechanisms which contain both real-life and digital-life elements.