Surprising study: Teen social media use won’t lead to depression

NEW YORK — Parents, teachers, and doctors alike have speculated for years that frequent social media use predisposes teenagers and adolescents toward depressive thoughts, feelings, and episodes. Now, however, a surprising new study from Columbia University finds daily social media use is not associated with an increased risk for depression.

It hardly felt possible before COVID-19, but many teenagers now spend even more time online because of the pandemic. With this in mind, the study’s authors say their findings will hopefully come as a welcome relief for countless parents.

“Increasingly, teenagers are active on social media, particularly during the pandemic, as they have to rely on Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms to stay in touch with friends,” says first study author Noah Kreski, MPH, a data analyst in the Department of Epidemiology, in a release. “While some adults have voiced concerns over the potential mental health risks of this behavior, our research finds no compelling evidence to suggest that social media use meaningfully increases adolescents’ risk of depressive symptoms.”

By the numbers: Teen social media use

The research team analyzed a huge dataset that was originally collected by Monitoring the Future, a long-term, comprehensive study on the behaviors and attitudes of Americans from childhood all the way through to adulthood. In all, information on 74,472 8th and 10th graders that had been gathered between 2009 and 2017 was used.

First, depression symptoms were assessed to formulate a baseline depression risk. Then, that risk was subsequently controlled for during further analyses in order to identify any possible links between depression and social media use among teens.

Predictably, social media use among 8th and 10 graders between 2009 and 2017 skyrocketed. For this period, female social media use increased from 61% to 89%. Male social media use jumped up from 46% to 75%.

Findings show a ‘weak’ connection to depression

Regarding depression, research shows that adolescents who gravitate toward social media usually have worse mental health than their peers from the start. Besides that, though, the authors say there’s no connection between daily social media use and increased depression risk.

The only finding that even slightly hints at such a relationship pertained to females showing the lowest risk of depression. Among that group, social media use was “weakly” associated with depressive symptoms. The same was not seen among any studied males, though. In fact, some data actually suggests that social media can protect against depression for boys.

“Daily social media use does not capture the diverse ways in which adolescents use social media, which may be both positive and negative depending on the social context,” concludes senior study author Katherine Keyes, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia Mailman School. “Future research could explore the specific behaviors and experiences of young people using social media, as well as more frequent engagement with the various platforms.”

The study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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