Studying social media impact isn’t all that easy
Published 4:50 pm Friday, April 28, 2023
Do we spend too much time staring at our screens? For many of us, the answer might be yes.
When I was a kid in the 90s, the only screen I had to look at was the television. We did have a desktop computer that I would use occasionally for homework, but it was not until my teenage years when I started using the internet for fun. (I remember my earliest browsing of the Internet was mostly spent exploring all the webpages on StarTrek.com)
Eventually, I got a cellphone too. And by the time I graduated college, I finally got a smartphone that was able to access the Internet from almost anywhere… as long as I wasn’t in a cell service dead zone, of course.
That was only 10 years ago, but a lot has changed in that time. We’re able to use phones for quick and easy access to things like Google (get your questions answered immediately!) and music streaming and e-books (save space on your shelves because you don’t need physical media anymore). But maybe the biggest change is the rise of Facebook and other social media. Instead of writing letters and making phone calls, you can just log onto your social media page and see what everyone is up to these days.
It’s almost like inviting everyone to your dinner table to catch up and gossip about the latest news in everyone’s lives. But the people are only in attendance virtually, and you can tune in literally anywhere and anytime.
This was a nice benefit during the early days of the pandemic when many of us were staying at home, because social media was one of the best ways to keep in touch with people. But the downside is that this virtual form of communication can, ironically, often make people feel even more disconnected than before.
Because social media has become such a big part of many people’s lives these days, it also makes sense that it might have an impact on mental health as well. The content we scroll past not only makes us feel excited and happy, but also angry or jealous or even ignored.
NPR posted an article recently detailing several studies which tried to figure out what impact, if any, social media has on teenagers and their mental health. The results were inconclusive, but there was still a lot of interesting information to consider (for all ages too; not just the teenagers).
In the early days of smartphones and social media, there wasn’t as much data available to study to draw any conclusions about social media impact. But over time, researchers have conducted several experiments with a variety of parameters in order to see what they can find.
Research by psychologist Jean Twenge shows that, if nothing else, social media has at least changed the way teenagers spend their time when they’re not in school. In past decades, teens often spent time hanging out with friends. But by 2010, that time together “nosedived.” At the same time, social media was getting popular.
According to Twenge, about half of teens in 2009 used social media every day. By last year, that percentage had risen to 95 percent.
But the issue is more complex than simply drawing a straight line from “social media” to “poor mental health.” Twenge also points out, for example, that an increase in screen time often means a decrease in sleep time for teens.
And I think we probably all understand how anyone’s mental health can suffer when you’re not getting the rest you need.
MIT scientist Alexey Makarin is another person who has tried to refine studies on the subject to get more accurate and conclusive results. One such study looked at data from 2004 to 2006: the time when Facebook was slowly being introduced to college campuses around the country. At the same time, there was already a national survey being conducted that asked college students about their mental health. With the staggered Facebook rollout and the survey results combined, Makarin’s team could look at whether or not upticks in depression, anxiety, etc coincided with the beginning of Facebook use. (The results showed that there was indeed quite a large uptick once Facebook arrived.)
But, of course, it’s just one limited study. Facebook in 2004 looked and functioned a lot differently than Facebook in 2023. (There wasn’t even a “like” button back then.) And this was before smartphones were widely available, so users could only access the site if they were on a computer. Which probably means that screentime spent browsing Facebook is a lot less than it could possibly be today.
Economist Matthew Gentzkow conducted a different study in 2018 where a group of users were paid to deactivate their Facebook accounts for four weeks. The team then gathered data on whether those people felt happier and had lower levels of anxiety and depression. Again, the data showed that temporarily quitting Facebook had a moderately positive effect.
But like the other study, it had its limitations too. The group in the study was only about 2,700 people – a tiny percentage of Facebook’s millions of users. And even though the ones who deactivated the accounts tended to feel happier afterwards, the study was only conducted during a short four-week period.
Gentzkow noted that it’s hard to draw conclusions on topics like these because plenty of things can make an impact on a person’s mental health, including environmental factors and family backgrounds.
I thought the social media studies and their limitations were really interesting to read about. Because people are so complex, I’m not sure they’ll ever be able to quantify the impact on a person’s mental health.
I think the best idea is to simply be mindful of our screentime, especially whenever we find ourselves in poor mental health. Taking a break might not be the complete solution to our problems, but it certainly can’t hurt either.
Holly Taylor is a Staff Writer for Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 252-332-7206.