We’ve all run into those miserable interactions on social media that left us walking away from the computer feeling a bit battered. But if the experience alone wasn’t bad enough, new research from Brown University is now saying the negative incidents we can get into on Facebook can actually increase our risk for depression.
Published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study looked at 264 young adult participants and asked them to state whether they had negative experiences on Facebook – like bullying, meanness, misunderstandings or unwanted contacts. And they found that participants who experienced more negative experiences also showed more depressive symptoms.
But that’s not the most surprising part. What makes this research so unique is that the study began in 2002 before Facebook was invented. This means researchers got vital information about whether the participant was depressed before the study started and researchers were able to conclude with confidence that negative Facebook experiences can cause depression.
“It permits us to answer the chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first — adverse experiences on Facebook or depression, low self-esteem and the like?” said Stephen Buka, professor of epidemiology at Brown and study co-author.
Overall, people who experience negative Facebook experiences had about 3.2 times more risk of depressive symptoms than those who had not.
Another novel aspect of this study is that it broke down negative experiences into levels of severity and frequency. So while bullying or meanness increased the risk by 3.5 times, unwanted contact had a milder association of about 2.5 times. And though it only took between one and three incidents of bullying or meanness to trigger depressive symptoms, it normally took four or more unwanted contacts or misunderstandings to do the same.
Researchers found this link even after controlling for depression as adolescents, parental mental health, sex, race or ethnicity, reported social support, daily Facebook use, average monthly income, educational attainment and employment. It shows just how much online interactions have become an ingrained part of our lives and have an impact not just on our mood but on our long-term outlook.
“I think it’s important that people take interactions on social media seriously and don’t think of it as somehow less impactful because it’s a virtual experience as opposed to an in-person experience,” said lead author Samantha Rosenthal. “It’s a different forum that has real emotional consequences.”
Ideally, research like this will one day help us in identifying the signals for high-risk teens in potential need of intervention. Toward that goal, another study recently correlated depression with the kinds of pictures people post on Instagram. It turns out a feed filled with the black-and-white Inkwell filter is less of an artistic stance than it is a sign something might be wrong.
But we’re not at a point yet where this research is ready to use to screen for depression. For the time being, the greatest benefit this research could have is for us to be more conscious of the risks of social media use.
Here, Rosenthal reminds us of research which shows people tend to “feel more entitled to bully online than they do in person.” So if things do get out of hand on Facebook or anywhere else, researchers suggest taking a break from the platform or unfriending the perpetrators.
“In some ways it’s higher risk,” she said. “It’s worth people being aware of that risk.”