Depression is slated to be the leading cause of disability by 2030. Now, research funded by the National Institutes of Health says that, for young adults, heavy social media use is correlated with depression.

This is worth paying attention to.

The research, published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, was the first nationally representative study exploring the link between social media use and depression. It looked at close to 2,000 young adults between the ages of 19-32.

Each participant took an established depression assessment tool and answered questionnaires on social media use. This included the 11 most used platforms at the time: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, YouTube, Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Vine.

The finding? Basically, that the more time a young adult uses social media, the more likely that person is to be depressed.

This was true even after controlling for other factors that can contribute to depression, including age, sex, ethnicity, relationship status, living situation, household income and education level.

According to the study's senior author, Brian A. Primack, "Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important ... to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use."

In other words, there may be positive ways to use social media, but it's important to know about the negative ways -- and limit them.

On average, study participants were on social media for 61 minutes per day, and visited their different social media accounts 30 times per week. Over 25 percent of the respondents were classified as having "high" indicators of depression.

Interestingly, the amount of time spent on social media was less important than the frequency of that use. For example, those who said they checked social media most frequently were 2.7 times as likely to exhibit signs of depression.

The upshot: if you're constantly checking Facebook or Instagram, you're more likely to exhibit signs of depression than if you check once or twice a day.

The study's lead author, Lui yi Lin, was open about the fact that since this was a cross-sectional study, it could not disentangle cause and effect. In her words, "It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void."

She also pointed out that exposing oneself to social media could also cause depression, which could then contribute to even more social media use. For example, if you already feel sad or ashamed of being single and you check Facebook only to see yet another happy couple that just got engaged, it could make you even more depressed, which could prompt you to check social media even more--perhaps even instead of going out and socializing (because, in a depressed person's mind, "what's the point?").

Therapists are likely unsurprised at such findings, considering that social media use comes with a whole host of emotionally dangerous characteristics, including the big one: comparison.

As is often pointed out, the issue with using social media to compare yourself to others is that you're comparing your reality to their highlight reel. It's rare to see someone post about their awful performance review; the fight they just had with their significant other; or the negative self-talk they suffered in the car on the way home.

No--it's far more likely to see posts about the cool cocktail a person had over the weekend; the picture of them climbing Machu Picchu; or the glowing birthday celebration of one spouse to another. It's hard to keep in mind the negative moments that may exist in those people's lives when all you're seeing are those high-vibe images.

In Ms. Lin's words, "Exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives."

Part of the purpose of the study was to contribute to public health interventions around social media. Some platforms are already taking steps. When you search Tumblr for tags like "depressed" or "suicidal", you are directed to a message that says, "Everything OK?" and then gives links to resources. Facebook has also tested a feature to allow friends to anonymously alert the platform to those who they're concerned about, so resources can be directed at them.

"Our hope is that continued research will allow such efforts to be refined so that they better reach those in need," said Dr. Primack.

In the meantime, it can serve as a wakeup call to see the cold hard numbers, along with the inescapable conclusion they point to: that it's critical to monitor your social media use.

Your mental health depends on it.

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"Comparison is an act of violence against the self." - Iyanla Vanzant

Published on: Mar 27, 2018