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Using social media increases depression, loneliness

In an experimental study of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram, US-based psychologists have found a link between time spent on social platforms and lower wellbeing. 

Melissa G. Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, and a team of experts undertook research examining the three platforms most popular with a cohort of undergraduates at Penn and then collected objective usage data automatically tracked by iPhones for active apps, not those running the background.

"We set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid," she said. 

To determine mood and wellbeing at the beginning of the experiment, 143 participants completed the survey and shared shots of their iPhone battery screens to offer a week's worth of baseline social media data. 

Participants were then randomly assigned to different control groups, which had users maintain their typical social media behavior, or an experimental group that limited time on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram to 10 minutes per platform per day. 

For the next three weeks, participants shared iPhone battery screenshots to give the researchers weekly tallies for each individual. 

Armed with that data, Ms Hunt then looked at seven outcome measures including fear of missing out, anxiety, depression and loneliness. 

"Here's the bottom line: using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study," she surmised. 

The findings do not suggest, she noted, that 18 to 22-year-olds should stop using social media altogether. In fact, she built the study as she did to stay away from what she considers an unrealistic goal. 

She posited, however, that the work does support the idea that limiting screen time on these apps can be beneficial.

"It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely. Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there's an enormous amount of social comparison that happens," she said. 

"When you look at other people's lives, particularly on Instagram, it's easy to conclude that everyone else's life is cooler or better than yours." 

Ms Hunt stressed that this particular research may not necessarily apply to other social media platforms, such as Twitter, because this particular work only looked at Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. She also hesitated to surmise that these findings would replicate for other age groups or in different settings. 

Those questions are still yet to be answered, she mused. 

But despite those caveats, and although the study didn't determine the optimal time users should spend on these platforms or the best way to use them, Ms Hunt said the findings do offer two related conclusions it couldn't hurt any social media user to follow. 

For example, reduce opportunities for social comparison, she argued. 

"When you're not busy getting sucked into click-bait social media, you're actually spending more time on things that are more likely to make you feel better about your life."

Secondly, she said, because these tools are here to stay, it's incumbent on society to figure out how to use them in a way that limits damaging effects. "In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life." 

The findings were published in the December 2018 Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. This story originally appeared on the U Penn website. 

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