Data shows that individuals over age 35 were mostly likely to be negatively affected by highly visual apps, such as TikTok and Snapchat.
A number of recent studies have focused on adolescents and young adults being negatively affected by frequent use of social media. Symptoms of diminished well-being and greater levels of anxiety and depression were commonly reported. A research question asked if these same symptoms might apply to older consumers of social media.
To investigate this question, data from multiple waves of an ongoing 50-state US survey as used. The surveys, conducted from May 2020 through May 2021, were initially focused on learning more about how adults were coping during the Covid-19 pandemic. Over time, researchers increasingly became interested in whether social media use might be linked to changes in mental health.
The survey initially asked people who were not expressing depressed feelings about their social media use, with subsequent queries to see if the people who were using certain kinds of social media were more likely to be depressed. The research does not prove social media causes depression. Indeed, it is possible that people already prone to feeling sad were more likely to log on to such sites.
Compared to adults who did not use social media, “people who were using Facebook, people who were using TikTok, and people who were using Snapchat were substantially more likely to come back and tell us they felt depressed the next time they filled out the survey,” reported Roy H Perlis, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.
The research also found age differences in how certain platforms impacted mental health. Depressive symptoms were more commonly reported among Facebook users under age 35 than older adults. The opposite was true for users of Snapchat and TikTok more depressive symptoms were reported among people over age 35.
The reasons for such findings were unclear. It could be that because Snapchat and TikTok are more visual mediums, perhaps affecting older adults differently. Or it could suggest that a person is out of sync with his or her peers. Perlis said more research is needed to interpret the results appropriately. Ultimately, experts recommend remaining mindful of time spent on social media.
The authors concluded that “Among survey respondents who did not report depressive symptoms initially, social media use was associated with greater likelihood of subsequent increase in depressive symptoms after adjustment for sociodemographic features and news sources. These data cannot elucidate the nature of this association, but suggest the need for further study to understand how social media use may factor into depression among adults.”
Mitch Prinstein, PhD, chief science officer for the American Psychological Association commenting on this research pointed out that “Our brains were not built for this kind of social interaction. And social media is kind of hijacking the need for social interaction with something very artificial and insufficient,” he said. “Social media is the empty calories of social interaction.”
Perils RH, Green J, Simonsson M, et al. Association Between Social Media Use and Self-reported Symptoms of Depression in US Adults. JAMA Netw Open. 2021;4(11):e2136113. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.36113