On March 14, the Journal of Abnormal Psychology published a paper linking a generational increase in depression, distress, and suicidal thoughts to social media use. Their studies found that, starting in the mid-2000s, there was sharp increase in the rates of these three conditions for individuals younger than 26 years of age and correlating strongly with the rise of social media. Curiously, individuals older than 26 seemed to be protected from the strongest of these effects.
Even after controlling for increased awareness (and potential diagnosis) of these conditions, the increase remained obvious. There was fundamentally something different about the Millennial generation’s (cited as individuals born from 1981 to 1996) social experience that contributed to the meteoric rise of these conditions. Especially affected were young girls, who faced a 1 in 5 chance of developing major clinical depression in 2017.
It’s important to note that strict causation is difficult if not impossible for large cohorts (such as generational studies), making social media one of many potential factors that are influencing mental health trends in younger adults. Other factors mentioned in the study are a reduction in sleep time, with 18.5% of college students since 2000 reporting insomnia, compared to a general baseline of 7.5%. This is particularly worrisome, given reduced sleep being a major risk factor for depression and suicidal ideation.
If you are not a Millennial, your risk of developing these conditions is considerably lower. In fact, older adults appear to be deriving more benefits than harm from the use of social media, with an American Psychological Association(APA) study reporting lower instances of heart disease, diabetes, depression, and disease overall for older individuals who engage in social media.
While studies are conducted to refine our understanding of these effects, taking breaks from or reducing use of social media and increasing face-to-face interactions, particularly among younger individuals, may avoid the majority of these negative influences. Taking steps to improve the quality of one’s sleep may be another step. Studies have indicated that light exposure from phones, tablets, and other devices around bedtime may miscue the brain into staying awake longer, with even stronger effects noted in children.
While social media – like any technology – is inherently neutral, it is its impact that determines the net benefit or harm. It is the burden – and responsibility – of both younger adults and platform operators to take positive actions where possible to reduce these deleterious effects and promote positive societal impacts of these transformative technologies.