The Impact of Social Media on Mental Health

July 12, 2019

New findings challenge the notion that there is a looming mental health crisis in the U.S. and that the crisis is being caused by technology.

Social media use is often pointed at for having a negative impact on mental health. But new research reveals that it has the opposite effect of what people think. 

In research published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Keith N. Hampton, PhD, a researcher in Michigan State University’s Department of Media & Information, tested the theory that social media, such as Facebook, use leads to declining mental health.

Data for the study came from the PSID (Panel Study of Income Dynamics), the longest-running household panel study in the world. The longitudinal survey began in 1968 with a representative sample from more than 5,000 families in the U.S.

To answer the question, “Is your Facebook really destroying your mental health?,” Hampton relied on measures of psychological well-being and separate measures of technology use from the 2015 and 2016 PSID.

Related: Surprising Perceptions About Mental Health

He found that active internet and social media users are 63% less likely to experience serious psychological distress, associated with depression or other mood and anxiety disorders. When tiny bits of information pop up on your cell phone and your Facebook feed, that ongoing contact might matter for things like mental health, according to Hampton.

Much of the existing research on the effects of social media use involves studies of youth or college students.

“Problematizing relatively mundane uses of information and communication technologies has contributed to a moral panic. The supposed cure-encouraging individuals to protect their well-being by limiting their Internet and social media use-may actually reduce a new protective influence on mental health,” Hampton tells Managed Healthcare Executive.

“Overheated public and clinical concerns about problematic Internet, cell phone, and social media use risk demonizing technologies that have a positive impact on the mental health of most adults,” Hampton says. “Generally, the protective relationship between information and communication technologies and psychological distress is only reduced due to social conditions beyond an individual’s control. Instructing people to avoid others online who are experiencing distress, for fear of ‘catching’ anxiety or depression, is antithetical to the goal of developing positive personality traits related to perspective taking and empathic concern. Such instruction removes a new and increasingly important means for people to communicate their problems and become aware of the need to provide social support."