Negative experiences on social media may increase the risk of depression among young adults, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.
The finding, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, may be useful for designing interventions and clinical recommendations to reduce the risk of depression.
“We found that positive experiences on social media were not related or only very slightly linked to lower depressive symptoms. However, negative experiences were strongly and consistently associated with higher depressive symptoms,” said lead author Brian Primack, MD, PhD, dean of the Honors College and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at Pitt.
College students who reported more negative interactions online were more likely to have symptoms of depression. However, positive social media experiences did not lower depression risk.
“Our findings may encourage people to pay closer attention to their online exchanges. Moving forward, these results could assist scientists in developing ways to intervene and counter the negative effects while strengthening the positive ones,” Primack added.
Unsettling experiences on social media may leave you feeling more than just anti-social — they might raise your risk for depression, research suggests.
Primack further said that the notion that negativity packs a stronger punch is not an exclusively online phenomenon.
“There is a theory called ‘negativity bias’, which suggests that negative things we encounter in the world are often more powerful than positive ones,” he said.
“For example, you might be taking four different classes in college, and you might have done very well in three of them. But it is that fourth class that you did very poorly in that takes up nearly all of your mental energy.” But, he continued, there’s an “argument for why the online world might particularly lend itself to negativity bias. This is because the online world tends to be completely oversaturated with false positivity. People get jaded to all of the ‘likes’ and all of the enthusiastic happy birthday wishes. But, when there is an angry or negative comment, it tends to stick out like a sore thumb and to feel particularly bad.”
The study participants were enrolled full-time at the University of West Virginia in 2016. About two-thirds were women, nearly three-quarters were white and about half were single. All were between the ages of 18 and 30, at an average age of 20. The study authors said about 83 percent of all social media users fall within this age range.
The respondents indicated how much of their social media experience tended to be positive and how much negative. The study participants decided for themselves what constituted a good or bad online experience, without any instruction from the research team.
A second questionnaire assessed the presence of depressive symptoms.
The researchers found that for every 10 percent increase in unpleasant social media experiences, the risk of developing symptoms of depression rose by 20 percent.
The study authors noted that depression is the leading cause of disability around the world.
With Agency Inputs