Philadelphia, PA— In recent years, many have questioned social media’s impact on mental health, but a recent study conducted by psychologists at UPenn stands as the first to establish a causal relationship between social media usage and decreased well-being.  

Melissa G. Hunt is lead author and associate director of clinical training in Penn’s Psychology Department — she claimed “we set out to do a much more comprehensive, rigorous study that was also more ecologically valid.” One hundred forty-three undergrads participated in the 4-week study, with each completing a baseline mental health assessment. From there, the participants were split into two groups: a control arm in which they were told to maintain current social media behaviors and an active arm. In the latter, students were asked to limit their usage of social media to 10 minutes per platform per day, with the study focusing on Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram usage (apparently the three major SM platforms used by undergrads today). The researchers then assessed change in both groups using validated scales that assessed 7 distinct dimensions of mental health: depression, anxiety, loneliness, fear of missing out (“fomo”), self-esteem, autonomy and self-acceptance, and social support.

While all of the results were interesting, some were significant as well. Depression was the dimension that revealed the greatest change from baseline. First off, reducing social media usage showed a marked reduction in depressive symptoms over the short study. In fact, when the control and experimental groups were analyzed according to severity of depression at baseline, those with low baseline depression demonstrated statistically significant improvements. The biggest news came from those in the experimental group who scored highest on the depression index at baseline. Their scores dropped by well over a third after just a month — both statistically and clinically significant.

Why This Matters—

According to Hunt, “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…It is a little ironic that reducing your use of social media actually makes you feel less lonely.” These results are especially important for healthcare marketers to consider. As more and more of our brands look to jump on the social media bandwagon, we walk a fine line between feeding an emerging threat to mental health and placing valuable tools where patients who need them most are already looking.

Hunt’s own takeaway may point us in the right direction: “Some of the existing literature on social media suggests there’s an enormous amount of social comparison that happens. 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.” Perhaps an intentional approach to avoiding posts and media that subconsciously drive comparison and disappointment serves as a strong starting point for our 2019 SM planning.

About the Author:

Drew Beck has spent his entire career in healthcare — from direct patient care as an EMT in college to countless roles in pharma sales and global marketing for leading life science companies including Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline. He is currently a leader on the Syneos Health Insights & Innovation team, a group charged with leveraging deep expertise in virtual collaboration, behavioral science, trends-based-innovation, custom research and global marketing insights.