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Negative Social Media Experiences and Depression

September 26th, 2018

Your new profile picture on Facebook received a lot of likes and complimentary comments, but the one person who said she hated your shoes has really got you down. Sound familiar? While social media allows for increased connectivity and social interaction, a new study from the University of Pittsburgh reports that negative experiences on social media may have more impact than positive ones for young adults.

Researchers at Pitt surveyed 1,179 West Virginia University students ages 18 to 30 to learn more about their social media use and depressive symptoms, and categorized their interactions as positive or negative. In findings published in the journal Depression and Anxiety, researchers reported that each 10 percent increase in negative experiences was associated with a 20 percent increase in the odds of depressive symptoms, but each 10 percent increase in positive experiences was only associated with a 4 percent decrease in depressive symptoms.

While these results are intriguing, lead author Brian Primack, MD, PhD, cautions that the study has limitations. “It is valuable to know that positive and negative experiences are very differently related to depression,” said Primack. “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.”

With the percentage of young adults using social media rising from 12 percent in 2005 to 90 percent in 2015, and mental health concerns in this population rising as well, Primack noted that health care professionals working with depressed patients could suggest strategies to improve the quality of online experiences, such as restricting time spent on social media to reduce the number of negative interactions and “unfriending” people or groups that tend to enable negative experiences. In addition, public health practitioners could start using the results to educate the public of the risks of negative social media interactions.

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