Four broad categories can capture the myriad ways in which we use social media, say researchers.
Each of those categories is associated with a cluster of specific personality and behavioral traits, according to the research.
“Social media is here to stay, so clarifying how people use social media and raising awareness of these findings are crucial first steps toward ultimately helping people understand how they can avoid the negative aspects of social networking and engage in healthier social media usage,” says Alison B. Tuck, first author of the study and a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study, published online in the journal Assessment, offers a new empirically tested model for understanding how our use of social media is associated with a complex web of social desires and emotional concerns.
Known as the “Social Media Use Scale,” the model is a response to a large body of research that has produced inconsistent and often conflicting findings regarding social media use’s influences on psychological well-being.
“Because of these inconsistent findings, experts have been advocating for research to examine social media use in a more nuanced way. We conducted a series of research studies to figure out what its structure may look like,” says coauthor Renee J. Thompson, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Emotion and Mental Health Lab.
Their scale assesses the frequency with which people engage in each of the four types of social media use.
- The belief-based category captures social media activities that express and reinforce negative opinions. This category of use is associated with traits related to poorer psychological well-being, greater depression, and an urge to seek emotionally upsetting content. Belief-based users may have poor self-control and might avoid boredom by engaging in drama.
- Consumption-based use, which is using social media primarily to consume entertaining content, is related to scoring higher on traits associated with greater emotional well-being, including greater self-esteem and extraversion and less depression. Consumption-based use is associated with more enjoyment from social media and seeking content that makes one happy.
- Image-based social media use focuses on activities that help users create a positive social image, such as making positive posts about oneself or tracking total likes or comments on a post. This category of social media use is associated with a desire to put oneself on display and engage in activities that prop up one’s sense of self-worth and integrity.
- Comparison-based use focuses on activities that involve comparing oneself with others or with an idealized version of one’s past. These activities are associated with a host of negative outcomes, including lower social and emotional well-being, concerns over physical appearance, and fear of negative evaluation.
Most studies on social media and health have based findings on simple measures of frequency of use or on varying definitions of passive versus active behavior—simple “lurking” on social media compared with posting, commenting, and social interaction.
In developing their scale, Tuck and Thompson tested various models of social media, including the active vs. passive model, and found these categories did a relatively poor job of explaining how college students engaged with these platforms.
The researchers set out to develop a more fine-grained scale based on a series of studies in which university students ages 18-23 years were asked to describe their social media activities.
In the first study, 176 students were asked to spend three minutes using their choice of social media and then provide an open-ended description of their activities and enjoyment.
“This is the first study to create a social media scale based on an open-ended response format, which is important because it allows participants to describe their social media use without being confined to predefined categories, such as ‘passive’ or ‘active,'” Tuck says.
In the second and third studies, both of which involved more than 300 college students, researchers asked participants to indicate how often they engaged in social media activities identified in the first study.
Participants also completed a battery of online surveys commonly used to score individuals on personality traits (extraversion, open-mindedness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and negative emotionality) and behavioral characteristics (fear of negative evaluation, self-esteem, depression, social physique anxiety, need for approval, need for drama, boredom susceptibility, exhibition narcissism, and emotion regulation).
Using factor analysis, a statistical technique that helps reveal common patterns in large data sets, researchers identified four social media usage categories: belief-based, consumption-based, image-based, and comparison-based. Each category is uniquely related to specific personality and behavioral traits.
The scale can be used to analyze behaviors on any social media platform that allows individuals to create profiles, connect with other users and view lists of connected users, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram, and TikTok.
By providing a consistent method for measuring well-defined behaviors across platforms, the scale may help researchers pinpoint factors that contributed to mixed results in past studies.
The current study has revealed important distinctions between image-based and comparison-based social media usage and their connection to depression.
Social media use is not all good or all bad for mental health. Our research is helping clarify the ways that these types of use are associated with well-being. With our current and future studies, we aim to inform healthy social media use recommendations.
“Our data suggest that these types of uses are distinct constructs, each associated with its own set of unique traits,” Tuck says.
Tuck and Thompson, both in clinical psychology, contend that it is important to continue investigating the different types of social media use.
“Social media use is not all good or all bad for mental health,” Thompson says. “Our research is helping clarify the ways that these types of use are associated with well-being. With our current and future studies, we aim to inform healthy social media use recommendations.”
“This new scale allows us to carve social media at its joints in more nuanced ways that will help all of us start to better understand what is healthy versus unhealthy social media use,” Tuck says.