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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — For children and young adults alike, it can sometimes seem like their smartphones are a part of their bodies. While younger people aren’t the only ones who can develop an addiction to surfing social media all day, a new study finds it can have a serious impact on their mental health. Researchers at the University of Arkansas say the more minutes young adults spend on social media, the more likely they are to suffer from depression.

Specifically, the study finds young adults who spend over 300 minutes (five hours) a day on social media are nearly three times more likely to suffer from depression than those who spend less than 120 minutes (two hours) online each day. Researchers believe obsessions with platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Snapchat, and Facebook are quickly replacing of forming real world friendships and achieving goals.

Comparing fantasy to reality

Study authors also think teens are comparing themselves to “photoshopped” perfect lifestyles they see online, which are impossible to obtain in reality. This makes them feel worthless in comparison to these images.

In the first large study to show a link between social media use and depression, researchers fear the COVID-19 pandemic will only increase internet use and worsen mental health problems. Study authors examined more than 1,000 Americans between the ages of 18 and 30, measuring levels of depression and their use of social media.

The results reveal young adults using social media more than five hours per day are 2.8 times more likely to become depressed within six months. This is compared to their peers who browse these platforms under two hours per day.

“One reason for these findings may be that social media takes up a lot of time,” says Dr. Cesar Escobar-Viera, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, in a university release. “Excess time on social media may displace forming more important in-person relationships, achieving personal or professional goals, or even simply having moments of valuable reflection.”

Social media is often curated to emphasize positive portrayals,” study co-author Dr. Jaime Sidani adds. “This can be especially difficult for young adults who are at critical junctures in life related to identity development and feel that they can’t measure up to the impossible ideals they are exposed to.”

Did the depression or the excessive social media use start first?

Lead author and professor of public health at the University of Arkansas Dr. Brian Primack says until now, most research on this topic has left scientists with a “chicken-and-egg” conundrum.

“We know from other large studies that depression and social media use tend to go together, but it’s been hard to figure out which came first,” Dr. Primack explains. “This new study sheds light on these questions, because high initial social media use led to increased rates of depression. However, initial depression did not lead to any change in social media use.”

“These findings are also particularly important to consider in the age of COVID-19. Now that it’s harder to connect socially in person, we’re all using more technology like social media. While I think those technologies certainly can be valuable, I’d also encourage people to reflect on which tech experiences are truly useful for them and which ones leave them feeling empty,” the Arkansas researchers adds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in every six adults in the United States will suffer from depression during their life. Around 16 million adults will deal with the condition every year.

The findings appear in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.

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