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Pitt study links depression, heavy social media usage among young adults

| Monday, April 4, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
This Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, photo shows a Twitter app on an iPhone screen, in New York.
Patrick Kastner | Tribune-Review
Can excessive social media cause depression?

Bill's Facebook feed is full of captivating beach scenes from the Caribbean.

Linda just tweeted that she got into law school.

Dave and his new fiancee appear to be overjoyed and in love, per their Instagram selfie posts.

These are fictitious scenarios at the heart of a recent University of Pittsburgh study linking depression to extensive social media usage among young adults. Some people prone to depression may feel their lives don't measure up to the constant flow of blissful scenarios.

The findings stem from research involving 1,787 men and women between ages of 19 and 32, focusing on the ways social media affects their respective psyches. Researchers concluded social media overuse can be associated with depression symptoms. On average, study participants spent 61 minutes a day on social media sites and visited different social media platforms 30 times per week. More than a quarter of those participants were classified as having high indicators of depression.

Lead author Lui yi Lin, a psychiatry and family medicine student at Pitt's School of Medicine, said the research team chose to examine a younger age group because they represent a large percentage of social media users. She and other researchers used questionnaires to delve into the participants' social media habits and an assessment tool to determine depression.

“There have been other studies that centered on depression and Facebook, but this is a more comprehensive look at how young people are using all forms of social media, from Instagram to Snapchat,” she said. “We still don't know the cause and effect, but it's something we should continue to study. It may be that people who are already depressed are turning to social media to fill a void.”

The study marks the first of its kind in examining depression and its association, nationally, with a wide range of social media outlets, according to Pitt.

“I definitely think that it could be true when you factor in pre-existing personality traits,” Lindsay Haslett, 22, a graduate student at Point Park University, said after reviewing the study results. “People are coming into their own at these ages and comparing themselves to what they see on various social platforms.”

When researchers compared social media patterns with mental health statuses, they found that those who spend more time on social media were about 2.7 times more likely to be depressed than other users.

“It is important to remember that all social media exposures are not the same,” said Dr. Brian Primack, senior study author and director of Pitt's Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. “For example, someone with lower self-esteem or self-worth could interpret others' celebratory social media posts as confirmations of their own inadequacy, while people high in self-esteem could find these photos exciting or motivating.”

Primack, Lin and other colleagues reported the findings in the April 1 issue of the journal Depression and Anxiety.

“I also think it's something that physicians should explore and understand — how social media fits in to young adult lives,” she said.

A steady diet of staged photos showing happy moments in lives of others could definitely make one feel incomplete, Haslett said.

“For me, the key is realizing that people aren't what they seem on social media,” she said. “I think that comes with maturity. The key is finding balance.”

Other findings include:

• Engaging in activities of little meaning on social media may give a feeling of “time wasted” that negatively influences mood.

• Social media may fuel “Internet addiction,” a proposed psychiatric condition closely associated with depression.

• Spending more time on social media may increase the risk of exposure to cyberbullying or other similar negative interactions, which can cause feelings of depression.

Tim McLaughlin, president and owner of the Aspinwall advertising agency 321Blink, concurred that most people post edited versions of their lives on social platforms. The agency handles social media campaigns for some of its clients.

“It's rare that you'll see someone posting something along the lines of ‘my wife and I just had this big fight,' ” he said. “When people's perceptions of their friends are in line with posts about great dinners and how wonderful their boyfriends or girlfriends are, I'm sure some people wonder: ‘Why isn't my life like that?' ”

As a father of four daughters, McLaughlin said it's important to understand the intricacies of social media.

“I think the takeaway from this is that parents need to be aware of these platforms,” he said. “There are too many parents who avoid it. You're having conversations with your children about drugs; how can you be a parent and not be familiar with social media?”

The study does not encourage people to abandon social media.

“Instead, we hope that this work stands as a reminder for individuals to pay attention to how they're using social media and to make sure that they are using the medium for improving life and not inadvertently detracting from it,” Primack said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or bschmitt@tribweb.com.

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