It’s hard to believe that social media has only been around for a little over a decade. (Remember when you needed a college email address to get a Facebook account?) But despite the popularity of social platforms, and the sheer amount of time we spend on them, the impact they have on our mental health remains a bit murky. Now a new review of 65 studies about Facebook and mental health suggests that the platform is linked to negative effects on areas of mental well-being including Facebook addiction, depression, anxiety, body image and disordered eating and even alcohol use.
Facebook has “1.13 billion people actively using the service daily,” researchers Rachel L. Frost, and Debra J. Rickwood, PhD, from the University of Canberra, Australia write in their review, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. “On the one hand, it provides a platform for social connection and belongingness, a core need for human beings,” they write in the review. But, “Facebook represents another technological medium that encourages continuous engagement: from creating and maintaining a profile of one’s identity and life to responding to notifications and updates,” they continued, which can be damaging to mental health.
While the findings are complicated and show that more research needs to be done, the authors told me via email that they were surprised about “the extent of mental health problems associated with Facebook use,” writing that it “demonstrates the far-reaching effects that social networking sites can potentially have on our health.”
Here’s an overview of their findings.
The big picture: Addictive use of Facebook “predicted poorer well-being and mental health outcomes independent of general Facebook use,” according to the review.
The details: The researchers looked at five existing articles related to addictive Facebook use, which they describe as “compulsive or habitual” use that can cause “negative personal outcomes.” All of the studies compared addictive use to general use, defined by amount of time spent on the platform, frequency of logins and number of Facebook friends. But it’s a complicated relationship, as general use was shown to be a “precursor to addictive use,” according to the review. Meaning addictive use was linked to worse mental health outcomes, but using Facebook at all could eventually lead to addictive behavior.
The big picture: Facebook use could trigger or exacerbate anxiety for some people, including those who are already suffer from anxiety issues. But for people who find social connection via Facebook, it could reduce anxiety. Using Facebook for social connection can lead to positive mental health outcomes, but using it without feeling any social connection while you’re doing it can be bad for your mental well-being.
The details: According to seven existing studies, people who experienced greater social connection from using Facebook reported less anxiety, but using Facebook exacerbated anxiety for people (in this case, students) who spent the most time on the site. One study found that people might feel less anxious while using Facebook because they didn’t have to interact with people face-to-face. “Face-to-face interactions may arouse more anxiety and Facebook is subsequently utilized to compensate for this fear,” the researchers write in the review, meaning the social networking site could be a coping strategy for people with preexisting anxiety, the researchers note. But to make things more complicated, a different study found “social use of Facebook related to increased social anxiety.”
The big picture: The researchers looked at eighteen studies related to Facebook use and depression and, similar to anxiety, the link between Facebook and depression really depends on who you are and how you use it.
The details: If people found social support on Facebook, they reported lower depressive symptoms. More depressive symptoms were associated with specific metrics like time spent on the site or negative status updates. That also applied to users who tended toward neuroticism, ruminative behavior and social comparison.
The big picture: Facebook users reported significantly lower body satisfaction—regardless of gender—compared to non-users. Time spent on Facebook was also associated with disordered eating attitudes, the review said, greater “objectified body consciousness, and, in turn, increased body shame.”
The details: The researchers analyzed a total of 14 studies that looked at the potential link between body image, disordered eating and Facebook use. Facebook users were more likely to judge themselves (which the review refers to as “self-objectivity”) and compare their physical appearance to others than non-users. Increased Facebook was also linked to “increased disordered eating attitudes,” according to the review. One study found a greater number of Facebook friends “and using Facebook for social engagement related to an increased drive for thinness.” Interestingly, men were significantly “more likely to report that pictures others post on Facebook” made them feel badly about their own body image. Another interesting finding was that “writing personally revealing statuses and receiving extremely negative comments (compared to less negative comments) predicted greater shape concerns, eating concerns, and weight concerns over time.”
The review also examined possible links between Facebook use and alcohol consumption habits and found that out of fifteen studies on the topic, a few suggested that using social networking sites during “early adulthood can influence attitudes towards alcohol use,” and that people with bigger online networks were more likely to to exhibit “problematic alcohol-related behaviors,” according to the review.
Again, it’s important to remember this review didn’t prove causation, meaning the findings don’t conclude that Facebook leads directly to any of these mental health outcomes. But they do reveal how complicated our relationship with social media is.
Rather than asking whether Facebook is inherently good or bad for us, the researchers think we should be asking more nuanced questions. “A more meaningful direction for future research would be to investigate demographic characteristics and processes through which these effects transpire,” they said over email. “For example, does passive use of Facebook (e.g., browsing Facebook friend’s profiles) explain why some individuals feel depressed after using Facebook compared to those who engage in active use (e.g., posting a message on their timeline)?”
This could help clarify why Facebook can be both good or bad for your mental health, depending on how you use it and who you are. For instance, some people “reap benefits from using Facebook, such as perceived emotional and social support,” Frost and Rickwood told me, which they say makes sense considering Facebook was originally designed to help college students connect with one another. But pointing to their own review, they told me, “it doesn’t appear to be the sheer use of Facebook, but rather how an individual interacts with and interprets content on Facebook that affects mental health,” they write.
Another interesting finding was that having more friends on Facebook didn’t necessarily equal stronger social connections. In fact, “many studies that reported a negative correlation between number of Facebook friends and mental health outcomes, such that more Facebook friends were more commonly associated with poorer mental health,” the researchers said via email.
They’re not exactly sure why this was true but they offered two possibilities. “First, those users with more online friends are likely going to be exposed to a larger number of peer profiles. Such exposure may be problematic for individuals who have a tendency to compare themselves to their peers or ruminate. Alternatively, previous researchers have suggested that lonely individuals are more likely to add Facebook friends to feel connected to others; however, if their social support needs are still not met, they may be vulnerable to mental health problems.”
Their suggestion? People should limit Facebook use if they feel it’s “having a negative impact on their daily functioning or is becoming difficult to regulate.” If you don’t know where to start, the researchers recommend “turning off Facebook notification prompts, refraining from use prior to sleep, and developing healthy patterns of use, such as logging out of Facebook during a set period of study or work.”
They also told me that “it might be worthwhile for all people to have a periodic respite from Facebook to see how it affects them. Understanding your personal balance, including the amount and types of features and functionalities you use, will help to facilitate the benefits of social networking site use while minimizing possible harms.”
For more information on how social media keeps us hooked—and tips on how to set healthy boundaries with technology—visit our Time Well Spent section.