Could social media actually improve mental health?

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Regular use of social media and the internet can improve the mental health of adults and ward off depression and anxiety, a new study reports.

Communication technologies and social media platforms make it easier to maintain relationships and access health information, says Keith Hampton, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.

So why do they often get a bad rap?

Because until now, much research has focused on youth and college students, not adults. Life stages, not technology use could explain the effects, Hampton says.

“Taking a snapshot of the anxiety felt by young people today and concluding that a whole generation is at risk because of social media ignores more noteworthy social changes, such as the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the rise in single child families, older and more protective parents, more kids going to college, and rising student debt,” he says.

So, Hampton set out to study more mature populations, analyzing data from more than 13,000 relationships from adult participants in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics—the world’s longest-running household survey. He used 2015 and 2016 data, which included a series of questions about the use of communication technologies and psychological distress.

The findings show that social media users are 63 percent less likely to experience serious psychological distress from one year to the next, including major depression or serious anxiety. Having extended family members on social media further reduced psychological distress, so long as the family member’s mental health was not in decline.

The study in the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication challenges the notion that social media, mobile technologies, and the internet contribute to a mental health crisis in the United States, Hampton says.

Other key findings:

  • Someone who uses a social networking site is 1.63 times more likely to avoid serious psychological distress.
  • The extent to which communication technologies affect psychological distress varies according to the type and amount of technologies people and their extended family members use.
  • Changes to the mental health of family members affect the psychological distress experienced by other family, but only if both family members are connected on a social networking site.

“Today, we have these ongoing, little bits of information popping up on our cell phones and Facebook feeds, and that ongoing contact might matter for things like mental health,” Hampton says.

Source: Michigan State University