Study Indicates Social Media Use May Not Be as Closely Linked With Anxiety and Depression as Previously Thought

By Katy Mena-Berkley
Monday, January 6, 2020

Research from Brigham Young University finds that quality of social media engagement and not social media usage itself may be the determining factor in its effect on young people.

In the age of technology, adults and children are constantly connected. And while the benefits of modern methods of communication are many, conversations trend toward the negative when discussing how social media use affects mental well-being, especially where children and teenagers are concerned.

Researchers led by Sarah Coyne, Professor of Family Life with Brigham Young University, spent eight years studying the correlation between social media use in young people and their mental and emotional well-being, specifically their experiences with anxiety and depression.

“I was at a parents’ night at my son’s school learning about how to deal with social media…and it was very fear-based,” Dr. Coyne says. “I wanted to really look at the impact of time spent on social media to find out should we really be in this type of panic. Is it warranted?”

Dr. Coyne and her team collaborated with 500 young people ages 13 to 20 to conduct their research, having participants complete annual questionnaires during an eight-year period. Questions included how much time was spent on social media on a daily basis and inquiries scaling anxiety levels and depressive symptoms. The researchers analyzed the results of these questionnaires to determine the level of correlation between social media use and emotional and mental wellness. The study was published in Computers in Human Behavior.

Unexpected Findings

According to Dr. Coyne, she and her team discovered that social media use was not as closely linked with anxiety and depression as some may have thought.

“It was surprising…we hypothesized there would be a longitudinal link there,” Dr. Coyne says. “But you can take two teenagers, and they spend the exact same amount of time on social media. And maybe one person has a really positive experience and they leave feeling great about themselves, and the other has a really negative experience.”

The main takeaway for Dr. Coyne was that by engaging with social media in healthy ways, such as connecting with friends and posting positive content, teenagers may avoid the negative side effects of passively scrolling through social media and comparing themselves with others. She also recommends powering down screens an hour before bed.

“What I hear time and time again is, ‘Let’s reduce screen time,’” Dr. Coyne says. “But by really empowering individuals to take control of their own social media use, they can use it in healthy, positive ways.”