Social Media Attacks Linked to Depression in Recent Pitt Study

By Benninghoff, Eric | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), June 24, 2018 | Go to article overview

Social Media Attacks Linked to Depression in Recent Pitt Study


Benninghoff, Eric, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Rampant and increasing online interactions among young people have researchers questioning what effects social media experiences are having on mental health problems such as depression.

A University of Pittsburgh study, based on a survey of 1,179 West Virginia University students ages 18-30, found a strong relationship between negative social media experiences and higher depressive symptoms.

The study published Thursday in the journal Depression and Anxiety also showed a weak and potentially nonexistent association between positive social media experiences and lower levels of depression, said Brian Primack, lead author of the study and director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health.

Dr. Primack cited "flaming" online fights, mean posts and being "unfriended" as examples of negative social media experiences. Nice comments on pictures and "friend requests" from old companions were positive experiences.

"We thought that having lots of positive social media experiences would be quite protective against depression," he said.

That is why the most surprising finding of the study is that positive social media experiences were only weakly associated, if associated at all, with lower depressive symptoms.

The issue is drawing attention at a time when 45 percent of American teens are saying they're online almost constantly, marking a dramatic increase from the 24 percent in the 2014-15 survey, according to the 2018 Pew Research Center report.

Dr. Primack said he decided to conduct this study after years of research relating overall social media use and depression - research that seems to be making its way into the public eye.

Out of 264 participants in a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Twitter survey conducted this week, 72 percent thought heavy social media use and feeling depressed were correlated, 19 percent said there was no correlation, and 9 percent said they were unsure.

"However, all social media use is not the same," Dr. Primack said.

David Bickham, a pediatrics instructor at Boston Children's Hospital's Center on Media and Child Health, who was not involved in the study, said it "starts to identify that there are different types of online interactions, and that those types of interactions are likely to have very different outcomes in terms of depression."

The study, he said, doesn't explain what makes a positive versus negative social media interaction because it allowed participants to self-determine what was positive and negative. Specifically defining these types of encounters "is a very important next step" in identifying what they look like and what effects they have.

In an email response, psychologist Jean Twenge said the study is well-constructed and takes a crucial step in answering the question of why time spent on social media is linked to depression when it's supposed to connect people. …

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