Since social media is comparatively new to us, conclusive findings are limited. The research that does exist mainly relies on self-reporting, which can often be flawed, and therefore, the majority of studies concentrate on Facebook. That said, this is a fast-growing area of research, and clues are beginning to emerge. BBC Future reviewed the findings of some of the studies so far:
In 2015, researchers at the Pew Center based in Washington DC sought to find out if social media induces more stress than it relieves.
In 2014, researchers in Austria found that participants reported lower moods after using Facebook for 20 minutes compared to people who just browsed the net. The study suggested that people felt that way because they saw it as a waste of their time. A good or bad mood can also spread between people on social media, according to researchers from the University of California, who assessed the emotional content of over a billion status updates from over 100 million Facebook users between 2009 and 2012.
Researchers have looked at general anxiety provoked by social media, characterized by feelings of restlessness and worry, and trouble sleeping and concentrating. A study published in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour found that people who report using seven or more social media platforms were more than three times as likely as people using 0-2 platforms to have high levels of general anxiety symptoms. That said, it’s unclear if and how social media causes anxiety. Researchers from Babes-Bolyai University in Romania reviewed existing research on the connection between social anxiety and social networking in 2016 and said the results were mixed. They concluded that more research needs to be done.
While some studies have found a link between depression and social media use, there is emerging research into how social media can actually be a force for good. Two studies involving over 700 students found that depressive symptoms, such as low mood and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, were linked to the quality of online interactions. Researchers found higher levels of depressive symptoms among those who reported having more negative interactions.
Humans are accustomed to spending their evenings in darkness, but now we’re surrounded by artificial lighting all day and night. Research has found that this could inhibit the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which facilitates sleep – and blue light, which is emitted by smartphone and laptop screens, is said to be the worst culprit. In other words, if you lie on the pillow at night checking Facebook and Twitter, you’re headed for restless slumber.
They found a link with sleep disturbances – and concluded blue light had a part to play. How often they logged on, instead of time spent on social media sites, was the next predictor of disturbed sleep, suggesting “an obsessive ‘checking’,” the researchers said. The researchers say this might be caused by physiological arousal before sleep, and the bright lights of our devices can delay circadian rhythms. But they couldn’t clarify whether social media causes disturbed sleep, or if people who have disturbed sleep spend longer on social media.
Despite the argument from some researchers that tweeting may be harder to resist than cigarettes and alcohol, social media addiction isn’t included in the latest diagnostic manual for mental health disorders. That said, social media is changing faster than scientists can keep up with, so various groups are attempting to test compulsive behaviors associated with its use – for instance, scientists from European countries have invented their scale to identify possible addiction.
And if social media addiction does exist, it would be a kind of internet addiction – which could be classified as a disorder. In 2011, Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University in the UK analyzed 43 previous studies on the matter and concluded that social media addiction could be a mental health problem that “may” require professional treatment. They found that excessive usage was linked to relationship problems, worse academic achievement, and reduced participation in offline communities. They also located those who might be more susceptible to social media addiction, including those addicted to alcohol, highly extroverted individuals, and people who use social media to catch up on fewer ties in the real world.
Women’s magazines and their use of underweight and Photoshopped models have long been maligned for stirring up self-esteem issues among young women. But now, social media, with its filters, lighting, and clever angles, is becoming a primary concern among some campaigning groups and charities. According to a survey of 1,500 people by the disability charity Scope, social media sites make more than half of users feel inadequate, and half of 18- to 34-year-olds say it makes them feel unattractive.