Multitasking on social media may put you at risk for anxiety or depression
If you live in a Western – or almost any “civilized” – country, it is nearly impossible to escape social media. Even if you turn off your computer and your phone, you will still find yourself barraged by ads on television and in print, begging you to use a certain hashtag, share a particular post, or “like” a certain page. Part of social media’s huge success is due to its incredible usefulness. It helps us stay connected with old friends with whom we would have lost contact after graduations, job changes, and moves. It also allows us to connect with more people than ever before – many of whom we would not have met under normal circumstances. Importantly, research shows that these connections really do matter do us. Even in the purely digital environment of social media, we can establish meaningful emotional connections1.
The dark side of social media
Despite these benefits, research has consistently found that too much time spent on social media platforms can be bad for your mental health. Specifically, the more time people spend on social media sites, the more likely they are to report symptoms of anxiety and depression2-4. Researchers are still investigating why this relationship exists, but they have a few hypotheses. One possibility is that people are using social media as a substitute for face-to-face interactions5, which could decrease the overall quality of their social support. Another possibility has to do with how people present themselves on such sites. Social media allows users to present highly “curated” versions of themselves. That is, they only show the good parts of their lives. Consequently, when you visit a social media site, you may get the impression that everyone else is much happier and more successful than yourself, which could make you feel socially isolated6.
The darker side
One aspect of social media use that has yet to be investigated, though, is whether the total number of social media sites you use matters. Using multiple sites simultaneously could lead to greater multitasking, which has been associated with worse mental functioning7. Another issue is that different social media platforms have different social rules and standards. Thus, using multiple sites could increase your chances of committing a social gaffe (e.g., accidentally posting that embarrassing photograph intended for Facebook to LinkedIn or texting the wrong person), increasing the amount of stress one might experience8.
Given these possibilities, Dr. Brian Primack and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh investigated whether using an increased number of social media sites was associated with increased symptoms of anxiety and depression8. The researchers recruited 1,787 participants between the ages of 19 and 32. They focused on this age range given that the majority of young adults in the U.S. report using at least one social media platform per day9. Participants were asked to report how frequently they visited up to 11 popular social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, and Reddit. They then ranked how much time they spent on these platforms.
The multitasker likely to suffer more
In analyzing their results, the researchers found that, overall, more time spent on social media platforms was associated with worse symptoms of anxiety and depression, replicating previous work. Though nothing new, it is important to see that this relationship is consistent across studies. In addition, they found that the more social media platforms a person used, the worse their symptoms of anxiety and depression. Importantly, this was even after they controlled for other variables, such as education level, gender, and time spent on social media platforms.
In other words, you could have two people, Person A and Person B, who both spend 10 hours per week on social media sites; however, Person A spends all 10 hours on one site, whereas Person B spends that time spread across six difference sites. Person B likely experiences worse symptoms of anxiety and depression than Person A.
This finding is intriguing. It implies that it’s not only how much time you spend on social media platforms that matters but also how you spend that time. To be sure, these findings do not prove that social media itself causes anxiety or depression. It could be that anxiety and/or depression make someone more likely to visit social media sites to seek comfort, social support, or even simply distraction. It could also be that the effect goes both ways. Perhaps anxious and depressed individuals seek out social media for support but then social media actually exacerbates their symptoms, creating a negative cycle of behavior. These possibilities mean that there are many avenues for future research to explore.
For now, this research suggests that, if you experience anxiety and depression, you may want to consider reducing or at least monitoring your social media use. Though we do not know for certain whether social media itself can worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression, reducing your time on social media platforms, or at least the number of platforms you use, certainly would not hurt your mental health and it may even help alleviate your symptoms. You should consult a mental health professional if you think your social media use could be negatively impacting your mental health.
1. Kramer, A. D., Guillory, J. E., & Hancock, J. T. (2014). Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111, 8788-8790.
2. Andreassen, C., Billieux, J., Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D. J., Demetrovics, Z., Mazzoni, E., & Pallesen, S. (2016). The relationship between addictive use of social media and video games and symptoms of psychiatric disorders: A large-scale cross-sectional study. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 30, 252.
3. Block, M., Stern, D. B., Raman, K., Lee, S., Carey, J., Humphreys, A. A., … & Blood, A. J. (2014). The relationship between self-report of depression and media usage. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 8, 712.
4. Woods, H. C., & Scott, H. (2016). # Sleepyteens: Social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Journal of adolescence, 51, 41-49.
5. Baek, Y. M., Bae, Y., & Jang, H. (2013). Social and parasocial relationships on social network sites and their differential relationships with users’ psychological well-being. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 512-517.
6. Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., yi Lin, L., Bowman, N. D., & Primack, B. A. (2016). Social media use and perceived emotional support among US young adults. Journal of community health, 41, 541-549.
7. Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583-15587.
8. Primack, B. A., Shensa, A., Escobar-Viera, C. G., Barrett, E. L., Sidani, J. E., Colditz, J. B., & James, A. E. (2017). Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among US young adults. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 1-9.
9. Pew Research Center. (2016). Social media update 2016. Retrieved March 3, 2016, from: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/.
Sam Hunley holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology from Emory University. He pursued his Bachelor's degree in psychology from Furman University and a master's from Emory. Sam's research, alongside Dr. Stella Lourenco, focuses on human perception of the space surrounding the body, exploring the impact of anxiety and phobias on this perception. Together, they contribute to Anxiety.org articles. Post-graduation, Sam became a Presidential Management Fellow.