social media use SMU

Social media & depression

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There has been lots of talk in recent years about whether social media use (SMU) is linked to depression. This new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine suggests that it may be. We look at social media use in our free lesson plan on Sexting, Pornography & the Adolescent Brain. We looked at depression a lot in Mental Effects of Porn.

This new study looked at 990 Americans aged 18-30 years who were not depressed at the start of the study. It then tested them six-months later. Baseline Social Media Use:

“was strongly and independently associated with the development of depression during the subsequent 6 months. However, there was no association between the presence of depression at baseline and an increase in SMU over the following 6 months.”

The paper goes on to say that:

“There are 3 major conceptual reasons why SMU may be related to the development of depression. One is that SMU takes up a lot of time. In this sample, the average participant used about 3 hours of social media per day, consistent with national estimates. Therefore, it may be that this large amount of time displaces activities that may be more useful to the individual, such as forming more important in-person relationships, achieving true goals, or even simply having moments of valuable reflection.

“A second reason why SMU may be related to the development of depression relates to social comparison. For young adults, who are at a critical juncture regarding the development of identity, exposure to unattainable images on social media sites may facilitate depressive cognitions.

“A third reason is that constant exposure to social media portrayals may interfere with normal developmental neurocognitive processes. For example, traditional pathways related to social relationship development, such as social cognition, self-referential cognition, and social reward processing, involve complex interplay among multiple brain areas such as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, medial prefrontal cortex, and ventral striatum.

“Although research in this area is preliminary, it is possible that contextual features of SMU, such as the rapid cycling of these reward and cognitive processes, may interfere with normal development, which may in turn facilitate the development of conditions such as depression. More research needs to be done in this area to evaluate these possible mechanisms.”


This study provides the first large-scale data investigating the directionality of SMU and depression. It finds strong associations between initial SMU and subsequent development of depression but no increase in SMU after depression. This pattern suggests temporal associations between SMU and depression, an important criterion for causality. These results suggest that practitioners working with patients who are depressed should recognize SMU as a potentially important emerging risk factor for the development and possible worsening of depression (emphasis added).

A full copy of Temporal Associations Between Social Media Use and Depression is now available on open access.

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