ST. CATHARINES, Ontario — The rise of social media over the past fifteen years has coincided with an alarming uptick in teen depression. Consequently, it is becoming an increasingly common belief that social media isn’t psychologically healthy for teens. Surprisingly, a new Canadian study found no evidence linking social media use with later depressive symptoms.
However, researchers did conclude that higher depressive symptoms among adolescent girls predicted social media use later on in life. Needless to say, researchers from Brock University were surprised by their findings.
While previous studies have found that social media use leads to depression in teens, this study’s authors were quick to point out that earlier research only focused on well-being and social media use in teens at one specific point in time.
“You have to follow the same people over time in order to draw the conclusion that social media use predicts greater depressive symptoms,” explains lead author Taylor Heffer in a statement. “By using two large longitudinal samples, we were able to empirically test that assumption.”
Heffer and her colleagues surveyed sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders in Ontario, Canada once a year for two years. They also surveyed undergraduate participants once a year, starting with their first year of college, over a six-year span.
The students were asked questions about their daily social media usage during the week and on weekends, as well as additional questions regarding time spent watching TV, exercising, and doing homework. After analyzing each data set separately based on age and gender, researchers found no link between social media use and depression symptoms later on in adolescents and undergraduates.
“This finding contrasts with the idea that people who use a lot of social media become more depressed over time. Instead, adolescent girls who are feeling down may turn to social media to try and make themselves feel better,” Heffer says.
These findings have left researchers with a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Does social media encourage depression, or are more depressed adolescents more likely to use social media? Ultimately, additional long term studies are needed to answer this question. Additionally, there are many other potential factors at play; such as differences in personality and motivation.
“There may be different groups of people who use social media for different reasons,” Heffer explains. “For example, there may be a group of people who use social media to make social comparisons or turn to it when they are feeling down, while another group of people may use it for more positive reasons, such as keeping in contact with friends.”
According to Heffer, the results of the study indicate that the recent tendency to blame social media for teenage depression may be premature. Researchers are hopeful that additional studies will help parents, lawmakers, and mental health professionals better understand how to address social media use among adolescents.