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Social Media and Wellbeing: It’s Not That You Use It, It’s How You Use It

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

Shortly after social media platforms entered the national spotlight about ten years ago, critics began warning us that excessive time scrolling, posting, liking, and commenting on posts would lead to negative mental health consequences.

Over the past ten years, various studies have examined the effect of social media use on well-being, with mixed results. Some studies claim social media use is causally related to increased anxiety and depression. Some say there’s no connection at all. Others offer a more nuanced analysis, pointing out that for some people in some circumstances, social media is a positive component of their lives, but for others, social media is the opposite. It increases sadness and depression while decreasing happiness and self-esteem.

This more nuanced approach appears to reflect the reality of the situation. After all, social media itself is simply a technology. It’s a tool we use for recreation, communication, and entertainment. Therefore, it makes sense that social media use affects different people in different ways.

A recent study performed at the University of British Columbia asked a specific question:

“How and why does the widespread use of social media affect happiness?”

Although researchers performed the study before the coronavirus pandemic, the results are relevant now because many of us – whether we admit it or not – find ourselves practicing the social media habit known as doomscrolling, informally defined as “reading continuously bad news without the ability to stop or step back.”

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and You

The study – “How and Why Social Media Affect Subjective Well-Being: Multi-Site Use and Social Comparison as Predictors of Change Across Time” analyzed the impact of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram on three aspects of subjective well-being:

  1. Positive affect
  2. Negative affect
  3. Life satisfaction

For the sake of clarity, positive affect means good mood, negative affect means not-so-good mood, and life satisfaction means overall happiness or contentment. To clarify the effect of social media on mood and contentment, researchers focused on different types of social media use:

  1. Passive scrolling
  2. Messaging
  3. Looking specifically for news
  4. Posting pictures or status updates

Researchers measured the mood and life satisfaction metrics through randomly timed telephone surveys over a ten-day period. Here’s what they found:

  • The more time an individual spent on the three social media sites – either separately or cumulatively – the more negative affect they reported.
  • Passive scrolling positively correlated with negative affect
  • Checking news positively correlated with negative affect
  • Posting pictures and status updates neither positively nor negatively correlated with negative or positive affect

The research team included more traditional interactions in the study, as well. They compared offline in real life interactions such as face-to-face conversations and phone conversations and found the opposite effect: offline social interaction had a significant and strong correlation with life satisfaction and positive affect.

What These Results Mean for Teens in Addiction Recovery

In general, this study indicates that proactive engagement in social media does not diminish the quality of mood or life satisfaction. In other words, posting status updates of pictures did not bring people down. What brought people down was passively scrolling through social media and news posts without directly commenting or participating.

In contrast, offline interactions – including phone calls – boosted mood and life satisfaction. These two data points suggest that while passively doomscrolling can have a significant and measurable negative impact on mood, that’s not the whole story. The potential for face-to-face and voice interaction on social media, either through direct messaging, video messaging, or interacting in livestream mode, has the potential to have a positive impact on mood and life satisfaction, much in the same way face-to-face conversations or phone calls have a positive impact on mood and life satisfaction.

Study author Derrick Wirtz, interviewed on the news site Science Daily, offers this analysis:

“Viewing images and updates that selectively portray others positively may lead social media users to underestimate how much others actually experience negative emotions and lead people to conclude that their own life – with its mix of positive and negative feelings – is, by comparison, not as good.”

For people in recovery – especially teens who spend a lot of time on social media – the meaning of this study is clear. Avoid doomscrolling, because it can increase negative affect and decrease life satisfaction. Both have the potential to lead to negative emotional states that can act as triggers and lead to relapse. However, there is a positive side of this study for teens in recovery. Leveraging social media to increase face-to-face interaction or live voice interaction can lead to positive mental states, which are protective, and can prevent relapse.

The final takeaway?

Use social media to connect, rather than compare – and you might just improve your day.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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