Study: Negative Social Media Experiences Linked to Depression

NEGATIVE EXPERIENCES ON social media are more impactful than positive ones in determining the likelihood young adults report depressive symptoms, a new study found.

Published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, the study found every 10 percent increase in negative social media experiences was associated with a 20 percent increase in the odds of reporting depressive symptoms, a statistically significant finding. On the other hand, each 10 percent increase in positive experiences on social media was associated with a 4 percent decrease in odds of depressive symptoms, but this finding was not statistically significant.

The study, based on a survey of 1,179 full-time students at the University of West Virginia, suggests negative online experiences have more impact than positive ones because of negativity bias.

"The way we're built as humans, we're more impacted by negative experiences as opposed to positive ones," says lead author Dr. Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at University of Pittsburgh. "If someone takes five classes and they do well in four of them but they don't do well in one, they'll focus more on that. We can become jaded to what people consider positive experiences."

Negative experiences in general could make people more prone to depression, according to Dr. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center. Whether you are "bullied in a hallway at school or someone is rude to you in a store," it is bound to affect you, Rutledge says.

But the age when those experiences occurs also matters, which is why she says it is important to note the study examined 18- to 30-year-olds.

"When people are in that period of their development, they are much more in tune to what others think of them," Rutledge says. "You're leaving your nest and establishing yourself in the real world, so you're much more attuned to what people think of you socially."

Overall, the effects of any social media experiences are hard to determine since they individually vary, according to the study. While some people reported increased levels of anxiety, jealousy and addictive tendencies from social media dependency, others lauded social platforms as a form of entertainment and for helping them stay connected.

"Examples of positive experiences are people praising you on social media, liking your pictures and having positive comments," Primack says.

Certain subgroups were more susceptible to reporting depressive symptoms, as women had a 50 percent higher chance of reporting depressive symptoms compared with men. Additionally, individuals who identified as non-white and only having completed "some college," as opposed to completing a degree, were more likely to report having these symptoms.

"We need to help people develop resilience to those negative experiences," Primack says. "Young people will come up against romantic problems, problems with friends in school, so it's valuable to extend resilience education to the online world."

Other solutions Primack offered include the restriction of time spent on social media or "unfriending" groups or people who have a negative influence. But when it comes down to it, Rutledge says we should always remember social media is simply a means to an end.

"We have to be careful not to villainize technology over what's a human function," Rutledge says. "It's very important to remember these are just tools."

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