Study: Social Media Use Can Increase Depression and Loneliness

The study essentially found that people using social media less than they typically would results in major decreases in loneliness and depression, with that effect being more pronounced for people who were most depressed at the start of the study.

Social media does have its share of positives — it allows people otherwise separated by significant physical distance to keep in touch and interact, it provides platforms for sharing ideas and stories, and it provides ways for the disadvantaged in society to gain access to opportunities. There are clear downsides to social media services though:

The link between the two has been talked about for years, but a causal connection had never been proven. For the first time, University of Pennsylvania research based on experimental data connects Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram use to decreased well-being. Psychologist Melissa G. Hunt published her findings in the December Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

Few prior studies have attempted to show that social-media use harms users’ well-being, and those that have either put participants in unrealistic situations or were limited in scope, asking them to completely forego Facebook and relying on self-report data, for example, or conducting the work in a lab in as little time as an hour.

“We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid,” says Hunt, associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department.

To that end, the research team, which included recent alumni Rachel Marx and Courtney Lipson and Penn senior Jordyn Young, designed their experiment to include the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates, and then collected objective usage data automatically tracked by iPhones for active apps, not those running the background.

Each of 143 participants completed a survey to determine mood and well-being at the study’s start, plus shared shots of their iPhone battery screens to offer a week’s worth of baseline social-media data. Participants were then randomly assigned to a control group, which had users maintain their typical social-media behavior, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day.

For the next three weeks, participants shared iPhone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual. With those data in hand, Hunt then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

“Here’s the bottom line,” she says. “Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”

Hunt stresses that the findings do not suggest that 18- to 22-year-olds should stop using social media altogether. In fact, she built the study as she did to stay away from what she considers an unrealistic goal. The work does, however, speak to the idea that limiting screen time on these apps couldn’t hurt.

“It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely,” she says. But when she digs a little deeper, the findings make sense. “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. When you look at other people’s lives, particularly on Instagram, it’s easy to conclude that everyone else’s life is cooler or better than yours.”

Because this particular work only looked at Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, it’s not clear whether it applies broadly to other social-media platforms. Hunt also hesitates to say that these findings would replicate for other age groups or in different settings. Those are questions she still hopes to answer, including in an upcoming study about the use of dating apps by college students.

Despite those caveats, and although the study didn’t determine the optimal time users should spend on these platforms or the best way to use them, Hunt says the findings do offer two related conclusions it couldn’t hurt any social-media user to follow.

For one, reduce opportunities for social comparison, she says. “When you’re not busy getting sucked into clickbait social media, you’re actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life.” Secondly, she adds, because these tools are here to stay, it’s incumbent on society to figure out how to use them in a way that limits damaging effects. “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”

Statistics on the Undercurrent Societal Problem of Loneliness

Now there is evidence that loneliness itself is directly harmful to human health, and that’s not to mention the indirect damage it causes. How UK doctors are prescribing people social activities also seems like a refreshingly progressive way at combating the problem.

Everyone feels isolated sometimes, but with one in five Americans chronically lonely, has loneliness reached epidemic proportions? In 1988, the journal Science published a landmark study suggesting isolation was as strong a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and smoking or obesity. Since then, loneliness has become an increasing public health concern and health officials are now taking the idea of an epidemic seriously. As the population ages, the burden of social isolation on public health will only increase.

Loneliness is one aspect of interrelated conditions such as isolation due to illness, disability or age; the social and language-based isolation of being an immigrant; depression; poverty; discrimination, etc.

This past summer, two surveys made news, marking the extent of loneliness in the U.S. and other economically developed countries. Since these and other studies are new, we can anticipate learning more about the interrelationships of factors that contribute to loneliness over time. That shouldn’t stop us from addressing the problem now, but may help provide better perspective.

The most recent survey, from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation, finds that 9 percent of adults in Japan, 22 percent in America and 23 percent in Britain “always” or “often” feel lonely or lack companionship. Another study of 20,000 U.S. adults, 18 and older, published in May by Cigna and market research firm Ipsos, reveals nearly half of American adults reported “sometimes” or “always” feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent); more than one in four Americans (27 percent) “rarely” or “never” feel that people understand them; and 43 percent of Americans “sometimes” or “always” feel their relationships lack meaning and they are isolated. One finding stands out: Generation Z (22 years and younger) scored the lowest of every age-group and appears to be more prone to experiencing significant loneliness. Gen Z may be the loneliest generation.

Regarding health impacts, several recent studies have found that loneliness is a risk factor for decreased resistance to infection, cognitive decline and conditions such as depression and dementia.

A UC San Francisco 2010 study found loneliness to be a predictor of functional decline and death among adults 60 and older. Over six years, lonely subjects were more likely to experience decline in activities of daily living (24.8 percent vs. 12.5 percent); develop difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5 percent vs. 28.3 percent); experience decline in mobility (38.1 percent vs. 29.4 percent) or climbing (40.8 percent vs. 27.9 percent); and face increased risk of death (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent). It appears that without social interaction, we languish and decline, though it’s possible that greater longevity, coupled with functional decline, leads to social isolation.

At the other end of the spectrum are challenges faced by young adults. Two 2017 national surveys of adolescents, in grades eight to 12, found among lonely individuals, especially females, depressive symptoms and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015. The studies found adolescents who spent more time on social media and devices such as smartphones more likely to report mental health issues, though it’s not clear if the self-directed isolation of screen time leads to or results from loneliness.

While we need to know more about causes to stanch this epidemic, many studies identify ways to minimize the effect of loneliness. Socializing with friends and family and increasing meaningful face-to-face interactions decreases loneliness. Those with active social lives report better health. Strong social affiliations — such as being part of a religious group, hobbyist circle or exercise group — have positive effects. Doctors in the United Kingdom make “social prescriptions,” specifying patients take part in structured social activity.

Loneliness Itself Bad for Heart Health and a Significant Factor in Premature Death, Research Finds

It’s a health problem in its own right.

Loneliness is bad for the heart and a strong predictor of premature death, according to a study presented today at EuroHeartCare 2018, the European Society of Cardiology’s annual nursing congress. The study found that feeling lonely was a stronger predictor of poor outcomes than living alone, in both men and women.

“Loneliness is more common today than ever before, and more people live alone,” said Anne Vinggaard Christensen, study author and PhD student, The Heart Centre, Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark. “Previous research has shown that loneliness and social isolation are linked with coronary heart disease and stroke, but this has not been investigated in patients with different types of cardiovascular disease.”

[…]

Feeling lonely was associated with poor outcomes in all patients regardless of their type of heart disease, and even after adjusting for age, level of education, other diseases, body mass index, smoking, and alcohol intake. Loneliness was associated with a doubled mortality risk in women and nearly doubled risk in men. Both men and women who felt lonely were three times more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and depression, and had a significantly lower quality of life than those who did not feel lonely.

“Loneliness is a strong predictor of premature death, worse mental health, and lower quality of life in patients with cardiovascular disease, and a much stronger predictor than living alone, in both men and women,” said Ms Vinggaard Christensen.

Ms Vinggaard Christensen noted that people with poor social support may have worse health outcomes because they have unhealthier lifestyles, are less compliant with treatment, and are more affected by stressful events. But she said: “We adjusted for lifestyle behaviours and many other factors in our analysis, and still found that loneliness is bad for health.”

Loneliness Can Damage Health, Can Possibly Cause Neurological Problems

Loneliness is often a serious problem in an industrialized society. If you’re really feeling down, you can send me an email or try to contact me otherwise, for whatever that’s worth. I know the struggle of isolation all too well, and I therefore feel some responsibility for trying to help others through that.

It turns out that feeling lonely can do more than make you sad: It can predict the way your body will respond to and bounce back from various health challenges. Lonely people are more likely to get sick, and researchers want to know why.

Three of them recently spoke about the current state of loneliness research and how scientists are responding. You can listen to their discussion on Aspen Ideas to Go, the podcast of the Aspen Ideas Festival, or watch the discussion online.

The 40-minute conversation covers such topics as what loneliness seems to do in the body — including increased inflammation and neurological and genetic changes — and how health-care providers are reacting.

For years, researchers have linked loneliness to poor health. People who say that they’re lonely are more likely to have dementia and inflammation, and to die prematurely. And in research presented to the American Psychological Association this summer, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University who participated on the Aspen panel, posited that loneliness is a bigger public health risk than obesity.