Scrolling through Instagram while bored during class or keeping updated on the latest Facebook statuses may seem harmless to a student’s health. However, in a study published in 2016, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found the more time young adults spend on social media sites, the more likely they are to become depressed.
This study sampled over 1,500 young adults between ages 19 and 32 using a questionnaire asking about usage of popular social media platforms and a depression assessment tool. The study concluded that “compared with those who checked least frequently, participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression.”
Young adults, ages 19 to 29, lead the pack of social media users in the nation with 90 percent of the age group reporting social media usage in 2015, according to a survey performed by the Pew Research Center. This is a 650 percent increase from 2005.
Psychologist and BYU assistant clinical professor Russell Bailey said human beings generally enjoy validation and having their experience acknowledged by their peers.
“On the one hand (social media) could feel really good. I could feel validated, I could share something that’s vulnerable for me to share and I feel supported by my network,” Bailey said. “On the other hand, I share something and I don’t get that kind of support and I start to say ‘What’s wrong with me? Am I not OK the way that I thought I was?'”
BYU alum and clinical psychologist Stephen Thayer and Utah-based licensed social worker Clair Mellenthin agree social media can — for better or for worse — affect the mental health of young adults.
Thayer said when it comes to social media “the poison is in the dosage.” He used an example of a group of people at a restaurant bent over their phones to express the disconnect social media can cause between people and their environment.
“When we stay in our private, online, social worlds we miss out on the social crucible of face-to-face interaction that forges emotional resilience and character,” Thayer said in an email. “Pandering for ‘likes’ on Facebook or Instagram does little more than feed an addiction to validation.”
This perceived validation can manifest itself in a certain number of “likes” or feedback a person receives on a post, which has a direct correlation to a person’s level of anxiety or depression, according to Mellenthin.
For senior BYU psychology student Brandon Wardrop, using social media sites such as Snapchat to see events he and his peers may have missed out on has the biggest impact.
“I think that it’s the fear of missing out (FOMO). Lots of FOMO comes in when you know that people are doing something, that’s happening live,” Wardrop said. “I think a Snapchat story has more impact on someone feeling like they’re left out, feeling lonely or those types of things.”
However, not all social media use has negative effects on mental health. Thayer said users can “reach out for emotional support, expand their social circles, stay connected to friends and family and find romantic partners” through healthy social media use.
Mellenthin advises users to consider taking a break from or reducing time spent on different sites in order to combat the negative effects of social media on mental health.
“Give yourself some permission to check it and then put it down,” Mellenthin said. “Post things that you actually care about and that are important to you and not things that you’re seeking out approval or attention for from other people.”
People should interact more offline and remember peers only post their best content on social media, said Adam Moore, assistant director of BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic.
“The more you know about people’s real lives, the more you will feel that you are not so different than everyone else,” Moore said in an email.
Thayer said students who may be experiencing symptoms of mental illness should seek help from a professional.
“If a college student starts to experience extreme sleep disturbance, low energy, decreased motivation, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, social isolation, uncontrollable worry, loss of appetite and/or diminished concentration, then they might need professional help,” Thayer said.