New study finds social media can positively impact mental health

By: Jonathan Shead | C&G Newspapers | Published October 7, 2019

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A new study conducted by Michigan State University media and information professor Keith Hampton found that social media can improve a person’s mental health over time.

Hampton’s study, “Social Media and Change in Psychological Distress Over Time: The Role of Social Causation,” looked at data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the world’s longest-running household survey since 1965, of more than 13,000 adults and how they answered questions related to communication technologies and psychological stress.

Two major findings from the study indicated that individuals who use social media are 1.63 times more likely to fend off feelings of distress, like depression or anxiety, and they’re 63% less likely to feel these mental health symptoms over time.

“In general, the relationship between basic home internet use and social media use, and mental health is positive,” Hampton said. “That means those people who have home internet access, those people who use social media in particular, tend to have better mental health outcomes over time. … (They) experience less mental health problems, less anxiety, less depression and lower levels of psychological distress.”

Hampton’s study, however, did also find that a person’s level of mental health fitness can be impacted by the mental health of their extended family members who use social media as well, something he said is unique to social media. As a person’s extended family member’s mental health rises and falls, so do the potential levels of that person’s mental health.

“Because social media and home internet use already provides that kind of protective influence on mental health over time, it takes a lot of change in the mental health of your extended family to have a negative impact on you,” Hampton said. “We’re talking four standard deviations out, so this is a very rare occurrence.

“The effect of that on you is, essentially, it eliminates the otherwise protective influence social media and internet use has on your mental health. … The effect on you at that point is trivial. Otherwise, you get this kind of positive, protective input, especially if the mental health of those around you is improving.”

Hampton said that while his study only looked at relationships with extended family members, he believes the same could be said for “all of our social ties out there.”

When Hampton began this study, he didn’t set out specifically to find a positive correlation between social media use and mental health. He primarily wanted to take a deeper dive into the topic because he felt pre-existing studies were limited in their approach — they mainly focused on youth or early college-age participants and made broad generalizations about the effects that social media has on people’s mental health from that generation alone.

He also used the study as a way to examine how social media promotes persistence and awareness in people’s lives.

Hampton said that despite his findings, he still believes the pre-existing arguments that social media can have a negative effect on mental health are valid, but only to an extent.

“There’s always examples of how the use of almost anything can be harmful in its extremes. The same is true for social media,” he said. “But the problem is, how do we define excessive? I think we have to remember that excessive is something that doesn’t apply to most people. It’s not using social media a lot; it’s an extreme. … Only in those extreme cases do we tend to see problematic outcomes.”

Kevin Fischer, the executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Michigan chapter, said he believes social media’s connection to mental health can go both ways.

“I think it can be positive in that it connects people. Human interaction can be very positive. We’re able to communicate more easily with friends and family who might be at a distance. … We can share family information and photos and all of that stuff to keep us connected,” Fischer said. “I think there’s some negatives to it as well, in that there’s been a number of studies that show how social media can lead to increases in anxiety (and) depression because there can be a disconnect from reality.”

Another positive outcome from using social media that Fischer finds, although not addressed in Hampton’s study, is that it can be a powerful tool and opportunity for people to express their mental health challenges to a community and feel less alone.

“I think it helps eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. For example, if someone is feeling depressed or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, that they may know that somebody is on the other end listening that can help them,” he said. “Social media can be a powerful tool. I see it as an opportunity, but unfortunately we’re too reactive. I think we need to be more proactive with regard to educating people about the signs of a mental health crisis.”

Hampton explained that, contrary to previous studies, “The everyday use of social media has a modestly beneficial effect on protecting people from symptoms like depression and anxiety over time.”

To check out the full study, Google “Social Media and Change in Psychological Distress Over Time: The Role of Social Causation.”