Social media has certainly had its share of red-flag research in recent years. Studies have shown it to be linked to a number of negative outcomes, including depression, jealousy, low self-esteem and even thoughts of suicide. A new study in the journal Depression and Anxiety also finds social media to be linked to depression, but only the “negative” experiences on it. Like others, the study doesn’t answer the chicken-or-egg question, but since negative experiences also weigh on us more heavily in real life, it’s not too much of a jump to think that the same might happen on social media.
The new study, from the Universities of Pittsburgh and West Virginia queried almost 1,200 students between the ages of 18 and 30 about their social media use, and whether their experiences with it were typically positive or negative. Participants also answered questions about their depression symptoms. The team correlated the two variables to determine how different social media experiences might be linked to depression.
The team calculated that for every 10% rise in negative social media interactions a person experienced, their risk of depression rose significantly—by 20%. For every 10% rise in positive experience, risk for depression fell by 4%; but this association was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.
The connection is telling. But technically the study doesn’t tell us which came first, the depression or the negative social media experiences.
“It is valuable to know that positive and negative experiences are very differently related to depression,” said study author Brian Primack in a press release. “But we don’t know from our study whether the negative social media interactions actually caused the depressive symptoms or whether depressed individuals are more likely to seek out negative online interactions. As with many things in social science, the answer is probably some combination of the two, but more research will be needed to disentangle cause and effect.”
That’s true, but from what we know about how positive and negative experiences affect us in the real world, it may well be that things work the same way on social media. In real life, negative experiences stick with us more—this is because of a well-studied phenomenon is called the negativity bias, which as the name suggests, refers to our penchant for picking up on negative events, images and news. We’re much more affected by disappointments than by happy surprises—a negative critique at work stays with us much longer than a good review, and sometimes intervening good news can’t even override recent bad news. The negativity bias helped our ancestors stay safe eons ago, since it was more critical to survival to remember where a predator, or a poison patch of plants, lurked than almost anything else.
So this is the product of millions of years of evolution, and still affects us today. Negative experiences often accrue over time and trigger depression. It’s not a leap to imagine that negative interactions with social media, which is a such a big part of many people’s everyday experience, would also affect us more strongly than positive ones.
It may also be that people who are depressed to begin with seek out certain types of social media interactions, as Primack says—so it could well be a two-way street. More work will be needed to fully understand how social affects our mental health, but from the research that’s been done so far, it seems like taking a break from social isn’t a bad idea. People who have done so, anecdotally or for research studies, are generally the happier for it. This doesn’t mean we have to give it up completely, but cutting down or taking periodic breaks is probably wise.