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Social media use in 2021, a majority of americans say they use youtube and facebook, while use of instagram, snapchat and tiktok is especially common among adults under 30..
To better understand Americans’ use of social media, online platforms and messaging apps, Pew Research Center surveyed 1,502 U.S. adults from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, 2021, by cellphone and landline phone. The survey was conducted by interviewers under the direction of Abt Associates and is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, education and other categories. Here are the questions used for this report , along with responses, and its methodology .
Despite a string of controversies and the public’s relatively negative sentiments about aspects of social media, roughly seven-in-ten Americans say they ever use any kind of social media site – a share that has remained relatively stable over the past five years, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults.
Beyond the general question of overall social media use, the survey also covers use of individual sites and apps. YouTube and Facebook continue to dominate the online landscape, with 81% and 69%, respectively, reporting ever using these sites. And YouTube and Reddit were the only two platforms measured that saw statistically significant growth since 2019 , when the Center last polled on this topic via a phone survey.
When it comes to the other platforms in the survey, 40% of adults say they ever use Instagram and about three-in-ten report using Pinterest or LinkedIn. One-quarter say they use Snapchat, and similar shares report being users of Twitter or WhatsApp. TikTok – an app for sharing short videos – is used by 21% of Americans, while 13% say they use the neighborhood-focused platform Nextdoor.
Even as other platforms do not nearly match the overall reach of YouTube or Facebook, there are certain sites or apps, most notably Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, that have an especially strong following among young adults. In fact, a majority of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram (71%) or Snapchat (65%), while roughly half say the same for TikTok.
These findings come from a nationally representative survey of 1,502 U.S. adults conducted via telephone Jan. 25-Feb.8, 2021.
With the exception of YouTube and Reddit, most platforms show little growth since 2019
YouTube is the most commonly used online platform asked about in this survey, and there’s evidence that its reach is growing. Fully 81% of Americans say they ever use the video-sharing site, up from 73% in 2019. Reddit was the only other platform polled about that experienced statistically significant growth during this time period – increasing from 11% in 2019 to 18% today.
Facebook’s growth has leveled off over the last five years, but it remains one of the most widely used social media sites among adults in the United States: 69% of adults today say they ever use the site, equaling the share who said this two years prior.
Similarly, the respective shares of Americans who report using Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Twitter and WhatsApp are statistically unchanged since 2019 . This represents a broader trend that extends beyond the past two years in which the rapid adoption of most of these sites and apps seen in the last decade has slowed. (This was the first year the Center asked about TikTok via a phone poll and the first time it has surveyed about Nextdoor.)
Adults under 30 stand out for their use of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok
When asked about their social media use more broadly – rather than their use of specific platforms – 72% of Americans say they ever use social media sites.
In a pattern consistent with past Center studies on social media use, there are some stark age differences. Some 84% of adults ages 18 to 29 say they ever use any social media sites, which is similar to the share of those ages 30 to 49 who say this (81%). By comparison, a somewhat smaller share of those ages 50 to 64 (73%) say they use social media sites, while fewer than half of those 65 and older (45%) report doing this.
These age differences generally extend to use of specific platforms, with younger Americans being more likely than their older counterparts to use these sites – though the gaps between younger and older Americans vary across platforms.
Majorities of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram or Snapchat and about half say they use TikTok, with those on the younger end of this cohort – ages 18 to 24 – being especially likely to report using Instagram (76%), Snapchat (75%) or TikTok (55%). 1 These shares stand in stark contrast to those in older age groups. For instance, while 65% of adults ages 18 to 29 say they use Snapchat, just 2% of those 65 and older report using the app – a difference of 63 percentage points.
Additionally, a vast majority of adults under the age of 65 say they use YouTube. Fully 95% of those 18 to 29 say they use the platform, along with 91% of those 30 to 49 and 83% of adults 50 to 64. However, this share drops substantially – to 49% – among those 65 and older.
By comparison, age gaps between the youngest and oldest Americans are narrower for Facebook. Fully 70% of those ages 18 to 29 say they use the platform, and those shares are statistically the same for those ages 30 to 49 (77%) or ages 50 to 64 (73%). Half of those 65 and older say they use the site – making Facebook and YouTube the two most used platforms among this older population.
Other sites and apps stand out for their demographic differences:
- Instagram: About half of Hispanic (52%) and Black Americans (49%) say they use the platform, compared with smaller shares of White Americans (35%) who say the same. 2
- WhatsApp: Hispanic Americans (46%) are far more likely to say they use WhatsApp than Black (23%) or White Americans (16%). Hispanics also stood out for their WhatsApp use in the Center’s previous surveys on this topic.
- LinkedIn: Those with higher levels of education are again more likely than those with lower levels of educational attainment to report being LinkedIn users. Roughly half of adults who have a bachelor’s or advanced degree (51%) say they use LinkedIn, compared with smaller shares of those with some college experience (28%) and those with a high school diploma or less (10%).
- Pinterest: Women continue to be far more likely than men to say they use Pinterest when compared with male counterparts, by a difference of 30 points (46% vs. 16%).
- Nextdoor: There are large differences in use of this platform by community type. Adults living in urban (17%) or suburban (14%) areas are more likely to say they use Nextdoor. Just 2% of rural Americans report using the site.
A majority of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram users say they visit these platforms on a daily basis
While there has been much written about Americans’ changing relationship with Facebook , its users remain quite active on the platform. Seven-in-ten Facebook users say they use the site daily, including 49% who say they use the site several times a day. (These figures are statistically unchanged from those reported in the Center’s 2019 survey about social media use.)
Smaller shares – though still a majority – of Snapchat or Instagram users report visiting these respective platforms daily (59% for both). And being active on these sites is especially common for younger users. For instance, 71% of Snapchat users ages 18 to 29 say they use the app daily, including six-in-ten who say they do this multiple times a day. The pattern is similar for Instagram: 73% of 18- to 29-year-old Instagram users say they visit the site every day, with roughly half (53%) reporting they do so several times per day.
YouTube is used daily by 54% if its users, with 36% saying they visit the site several times a day. By comparison, Twitter is used less frequently, with fewer than half of its users (46%) saying they visit the site daily.
- Due to a limited sample size, figures for those ages 25 to 29 cannot be reported on separately. ↩
- There were not enough Asian American respondents in the sample to be broken out into a separate analysis. As always, their responses are incorporated into the general population figures throughout this report. ↩
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About Pew Research Center Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping the world. It conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, media content analysis and other empirical social science research. Pew Research Center does not take policy positions. It is a subsidiary of The Pew Charitable Trusts .
Social media's growing impact on our lives
Media psychology researchers are beginning to tease apart the ways in which time spent on social media is, and is not, impacting our day-to-day lives.
Social media use has skyrocketed over the past decade and a half. Whereas only five percent of adults in the United States reported using a social media platform in 2005, that number is now around 70 percent .
Growth in the number of people who use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat and other social media platforms — and the time spent on them—has garnered interest and concern among policymakers, teachers, parents, and clinicians about social media's impacts on our lives and psychological well-being.
While the research is still in its early years — Facebook itself only celebrated its 15 th birthday this year — media psychology researchers are beginning to tease apart the ways in which time spent on these platforms is, and is not, impacting our day-to-day lives.
Social media and relationships
One particularly pernicious concern is whether time spent on social media sites is eating away at face-to-face time, a phenomenon known as social displacement .
Fears about social displacement are longstanding, as old as the telephone and probably older. “This issue of displacement has gone on for more than 100 years,” says Jeffrey Hall, PhD, director of the Relationships and Technology Lab at the University of Kansas. “No matter what the technology is,” says Hall, there is always a “cultural belief that it's replacing face-to-face time with our close friends and family.”
Hall's research interrogates that cultural belief. In one study , participants kept a daily log of time spent doing 19 different activities during weeks when they were and were not asked to abstain from using social media. In the weeks when people abstained from social media, they spent more time browsing the internet, working, cleaning, and doing household chores. However, during these same abstention periods, there was no difference in people's time spent socializing with their strongest social ties.
The upshot? “I tend to believe, given my own work and then reading the work of others, that there's very little evidence that social media directly displaces meaningful interaction with close relational partners,” says Hall. One possible reason for this is because we tend to interact with our close loved ones through several different modalities—such as texts, emails, phone calls, and in-person time.
What about teens?
When it comes to teens, a recent study by Jean Twenge , PhD, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, and colleagues found that, as a cohort, high school seniors heading to college in 2016 spent an “ hour less a day engaging in in-person social interaction” — such as going to parties, movies, or riding in cars together — compared with high school seniors in the late 1980s. As a group, this decline was associated with increased digital media use. However, at the individual level, more social media use was positively associated with more in-person social interaction. The study also found that adolescents who spent the most time on social media and the least time in face-to-face social interactions reported the most loneliness.
While Twenge and colleagues posit that overall face-to-face interactions among teens may be down due to increased time spent on digital media, Hall says there's a possibility that the relationship goes the other way.
Hall cites the work of danah boyd, PhD, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder of Data & Society . “She [boyd] says that it's not the case that teens are displacing their social face-to-face time through social media. Instead, she argues we got the causality reversed,” says Hall. “We are increasingly restricting teens' ability to spend time with their peers . . . and they're turning to social media to augment it.”
According to Hall, both phenomena could be happening in tandem — restrictive parenting could drive social media use and social media use could reduce the time teens spend together in person — but focusing on the latter places the culpability more on teens while ignoring the societal forces that are also at play.
The evidence is clear about one thing: Social media is popular among teens. A 2018 Common Sense Media report found that 81 percent of teens use social media, and more than a third report using social media sites multiple times an hour. These statistics have risen dramatically over the past six years, likely driven by increased access to mobile devices. Rising along with these stats is a growing interest in the impact that social media is having on teen cognitive development and psychological well-being.
“What we have found, in general, is that social media presents both risks and opportunities for adolescents,” says Kaveri Subrahmanyam , PhD, a developmental psychologist, professor at Cal State LA, and associate director of the Children's Digital Media Center, Los Angeles .
Risks of expanding social networks
Social media benefits teens by expanding their social networks and keeping them in touch with their peers and far-away friends and family. It is also a creativity outlet. In the Common Sense Media report, more than a quarter of teens said that “social media is ‘extremely' or ‘very' important for them for expressing themselves creatively.”
But there are also risks. The Common Sense Media survey found that 13 percent of teens reported being cyberbullied at least once. And social media can be a conduit for accessing inappropriate content like violent images or pornography. Nearly two-thirds of teens who use social media said they “'often' or ‘sometimes' come across racist, sexist, homophobic, or religious-based hate content in social media.”
With all of these benefits and risks, how is social media affecting cognitive development? “What we have found at the Children's Digital Media Center is that a lot of digital communication use and, in particular, social media use seems to be connected to offline developmental concerns,” says Subrahmanyam. “If you look at the adolescent developmental literature, the core issues facing youth are sexuality, identity, and intimacy,” says Subrahmanyam.
Her research suggests that different types of digital communication may involve different developmental issues. For example, she has found that teens frequently talked about sex in chat rooms , whereas their use of blogs and social media appears to be more concerned with self-presentation and identity construction.
In particular, exploring one's identity appears to be a crucial use of visually focused social media sites for adolescents. “Whether it's Facebook, whether it's Instagram, there's a lot of strategic self presentation, and it does seem to be in the service of identity,” says Subrahmanyam. “I think where it gets gray is that we don't know if this is necessarily beneficial or if it harms.”
“It's important to develop a coherent identity,” she says. “But within the context of social media — when it's not clear that people are necessarily engaging in real self presentation and there's a lot of ideal-self or false-self presentation — is that good?”
There are also more questions than answers when it comes to how social media affects the development of intimate relationships during adolescence. Does having a wide network of contacts — as is common in social media—lead to more superficial interactions and hinder intimacy? Or, perhaps more important, “Is the support that you get online as effective as the support that you get offline?” ponders Subrahmanyam. “We don't know that necessarily.”
Based on her own research comparing text messages and face-to-face interactions, she says: “My hypothesis is that maybe digital interactions may be a little more ephemeral, they're a little more fleeting, and you feel good, but that the feeling is lost quickly versus face-to-face interaction.”
However, she notes that today's teens — being tech natives — may get less hung up on the online/offline dichotomy. “ We tend to think about online and offline as disconnected, but we have to recognize that for youth . . . there's so much more fluidity and connectedness between the real and the physical and the offline and the online,” she says.
In fact, growing up with digital technology may be changing teen brain development in ways we don't yet know — and these changes may, in turn, change how teens relate to technology. “Because the exposure to technology is happening so early, we have to be mindful of the possibility that perhaps there are changes happening at a neural level with early exposure,” says Subrahmanyam. “How youths interact with technology could just be qualitatively different from how we do it.”
In part two of this article , we will look at how social media affects psychological well-being and ways of using social media that are likely to amplify its benefits and decrease its harms.
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International Journal of Adolescence and Youth
A systematic review: the influence of social media on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents
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While becoming inextricable to our daily lives, online social media are blamed for increasing mental health problems in younger people. This systematic review synthesized evidence on the influence of social media use on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. A search of PsycINFO, Medline, Embase, CINAHL and SSCI databases reaped 13 eligible studies, of which 12 were cross-sectional. Findings were classified into four domains of social media: time spent, activity, investment and addiction. All domains correlated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress. However, there are considerable caveats due to methodological limitations of cross-sectional design, sampling and measures. Mechanisms of the putative effects of social media on mental health should be explored further through qualitative enquiry and longitudinal cohort studies.
- social media
- psychological distress
Children and adolescent mental health
The World Health Organization (WHO, Citation 2017 ) reported that 10–20% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental health problems. It is estimated that 50% of all mental disorders are established by the age of 14 and 75% by the age of 18 (Kessler et al., Citation 2007 ; Kim-Cohen et al., Citation 2003 ). The most common disorders in children and adolescents are generalized anxiety disorder and depression, respectively (Mental Health Foundation, Citation 2018 ; Stansfeld et al., Citation 2016 ). According to the Royal Society for Public Health, & Young Health Movement ( Citation 2017 ), the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased by 70% in the past 25 years in young people. Depression and anxiety have adverse consequences on adolescent development, including lower educational attainment, school dropout, impaired social relationships, and increased risk of substance abuse, mental health problems and suicide (Copeland, Angold, Shanahan, & Costello, Citation 2014 ; Gore et al., Citation 2011 ; Hetrick, Cox, Witt, Bir, & Merry, Citation 2016 ). Morgan et al. ( Citation 2017 ) reported that the rate of self-harm in the UK has risen by 68% in girls aged 13–16 over the last 10 years.
Reasons for the apparently growing psychological morbidity in young people are not known conclusively. McCrae ( Citation 2018 ) suggests that diagnostic activity has been influenced by educational initiatives to raise mental health awareness. Undeterred by stigma, many young people feel free to discuss their psychological difficulties and seek professional help. Another important factor is the ease of sharing personal experiences in the digital information age (Reid-Chassiakos, Radesky, Christakis, & Moreno, Citation 2016 ). Whereas in the past mental health problems were suffered in isolation, today a struggling younger person can readily find others with similar problems, either through social interaction or support groups. Alongside increasing awareness and help-seeking behaviour, doctors may be more inclined to diagnose and treat mental health problems, possibly with the effect of lowering the diagnostic threshold.
The term ‘social media’ refers to the various internet-based networks that enable users to interact with others, verbally and visually (Carr & Hayes, Citation 2015 ). According to the Pew Research Centre ( Citation 2015 ), at least 92% of teenagers are active on social media. Lenhart, Smith, Anderson, Duggan, and Perrin ( Citation 2015 ) identified the 13–17 age group as particularly heavy users of social media users, with 87% having access to a computer, and 58% to a tablet device. Almost three-quarters of adolescents aged 15 to17 use a smartphone, and 68% of those aged 13 to 14 (Pew Research Centre, Citation 2015 ).
Impact on mental health
Understanding the impact of social media on adolescents’ well-being has become a priority due to a simultaneous increase in mental health problems (Kim, Citation 2017 ). Problematic behaviours related to internet use are often described in psychiatric terminology, such as ‘addiction’. However, some activity in younger people could be misconstrued as abnormal. For example, young people who frequently post images of themselves (‘selfies’) may appear narcissistic, but such behaviour has emerged as a social norm in younger social networks (McCrae, Citation 2018 ). Nonetheless, warnings have been issued by psychologists and other experts on how younger people are engaging with social media and related impairment to personal and social development (Greenfield, Citation 2014 ; Twenge, Citation 2006 ).
Social media could be regarded as a ‘double-edged sword’. Studies show the benefits of enabling people to express their thoughts and feelings, and to receive social support (Deters & Mehl, Citation 2013 ; Lenhart et al., Citation 2015 ; Lilley, Ball, & Vernon, Citation 2014 ; O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, Citation 2011 ; Rosen, Citation 2011 ). Research has also indicated a link between social media use and psychological problems. A systematic review of 11 studies measuring social media use and depressive symptoms in children and adolescents showed a small but statistically significant relationship (McCrae, Gettings, & Purssell, Citation 2017 ). A meta-analysis of 23 studies showed correlation of problematic Facebook use and psychological distress in adolescent and young adults (Marino, Gini, Vieno, & Spada, Citation 2018 ). Other systematic reviews have also found a meaningful relationship between social media use and depression (Best, Manktelow, & Taylor, Citation 2014 ; Hoare, Milton, Foster, & Allender, Citation 2016 ).
The link between social media and mental health problems is not straightforward, with various contributory factors. A report by the Royal Society for Public Health, & Young Health Movement ( Citation 2017 ) suggested impaired sleep as a mechanism. Internet use is a sedentary behaviour, which in excess raises the risk of health problems (Iannotti et al., Citation 2009 ). A meta-analysis by Asare ( Citation 2015 ) showed that sedentary behaviour has a deleterious effect on mental health in young people, although the direction of this relationship is unclear: people with mental health problems may be more likely to be less physically active. Multitasking is common on social media, with users having accounts on multiple platforms. A study by Rosen, Whaling, Rab, Carrier, and Cheever ( Citation 2013 ) showed that online multitasking predicts symptoms of mental disorders. Primack and Escobar-Viera ( Citation 2017 ) found that the number of social media accounts correlated with the level of anxiety, due to overwhelming demand.
Another principal factor influencing the relationship between social media use and mental health is social support. According to the report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, social media enable adolescent users to strengthen bonds with existing friends and to form new friendships online, which reduce social isolation and loneliness, and indirectly improve mental health (O’Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, Citation 2011 ). Studies support that those with low social support are more likely to suffer from mental health problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and psychological distress) compared to those with high social support from family, friends and neighbours (Klineberg et al., Citation 2006 ; Maulik, Eaton, & Bradshaw, Citation 2011 ). Reviewing 70 studies, Seabrook, Kern, and Rickard ( Citation 2016 ) found an inverse correlation between supportive online interaction on social media and both depression and anxiety. However, as some researchers (e.g. Teo, Choi, & Valenstein, Citation 2013 ; Vandervoort, Citation 1999 ) have indicated, the quality of social support may be more important than quantity.
As explained by social comparison theory (Festinger, Citation 1954 ), people tend to compare themselves to others to assess their opinion and abilities. Interestingly, such behaviour is more common in adolescents than in younger children and adults (Krayer, Ingledew, & Iphofen, Citation 2008 ; Myers & Crowther, Citation 2009 ). The impact of social media on mental health may differ between adolescents who engage in downward social comparison (comparing themselves to lower performers) and those who use higher performers as a reference point. A systematic review by Seabrook et al. ( Citation 2016 ) reported a correlation between negative online interaction and both depression and anxiety. Similarly, Appel, Gerlach, and Crusius ( Citation 2016 ) found that passive Facebook use predicts social comparison and envy, which in turn lead to depression.
Adolescence is the period of personal and social identity formation (Erikson, Citation 1950 ), and much of this development is now reliant on social media. Due to their limited capacity for self-regulation and their vulnerability to peer pressure, adolescents may not evade the potentially adverse effects of social media use, and consequently, they are at greater risk of developing mental disorder. However, evidence on the influence of social media on adolescents’ psychosocial development remains at an early stage of development. Much of the research to date has studied young people of later adolescence and college or university students. Previous systematic reviews included more studies since they have either focussed on a heterogeneous population including children, adolescents and adults (Baker & Algorta, Citation 2016 ; Marino et al., Citation 2018 ; Seabrook et al., Citation 2016 ) or focussed on general mental well-being including both clinical outcomes and subjective well-being as the outcome of interest (Best et al., Citation 2014 ; Marino et al., Citation 2018 ).
This systematic review examined evidence for the influence of social media use on depression, anxiety and psychological distress in adolescents. The intention was to inform policy and practice and to indicate further research on this topic.
Protocol and registration
For transparency, the protocol for this review was registered with the International Prospective Register of Systematic Reviews (Prospero; CRD42018102770). This report follows the guidelines of the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA) statement (Moher, Liberati, Tetzlaff, & Altman, Citation 2009a ).
Participants: aged 13 to 18
Exposure: measurement of social media use
Outcome: depression, anxiety or psychological distress, assessed by validated instruments
Studies published in peer-reviewed journals with full text available in English
Studies were excluded if they crossed either boundary of the age range. Studies measuring exposure to other internet activities such as video-gaming were not included unless social media use was also measured. Outcomes of substance misuse, eating disorder, well-being, life satisfaction, self-esteem, body image problems, conduct disorders, loneliness or stress were excluded, unless the outcomes of interest were also measured by the researchers.
Table 1. search terms and linkage (medline), data extraction.
All papers from the automated database searches were collated using the Mendeley reference management software. After duplicates were deleted, screening was conducted to ensure that studies fulfilled the eligibility criteria. In a three-stage process, papers were screened on title and on abstract (by BK) and the remaining papers were screened on full text (by BK, NM and AG). Key information relevant to the research question was systematically extracted and tabulated to aid comparison and synthesis of the studies. These data comprised authors, publication date, country of origin, study design and data analysis method, relevant outcome measures, sample size, demographic data and results. The extraction process was conducted by BK and AG and any disagreements resolved through discussion with NM.
Assessment of quality
The quality of eligible studies was assessed using the National Institutes of Health Quality Assessment tool for Observational Cohort and Cross-Sectional Studies (NIH, Citation 2014 ), which covers design, selection bias, data collection, confounders, blinding and attrition. An overall rating of ‘good’, ‘fair’ or ‘poor’ was given for each study. All of the studies were independently rated by BK and AG, and any disagreements were resolved through discussion with NM.
As outcome measures varied across the studies, we were unable to perform meta-analysis. Instead, narrative synthesis was conducted. This enabled consideration of confounding, mediating and moderating variables, which are often not given due attention in meta-analysis (Popay et al., Citation 1995 ). Each study was described, followed by comparative analysis and synthesis.
Figure 1. PRISMA 2009 flow diagram
Description of studies
Table 2. summary of studies, quality assessment, table 3. quality assessment.
Four studies (Dumitrache et al., Citation 2012 ; O’Dea & Campbell, Citation 2011 ; Tsitsika et al., Citation 2014 ) failed to clearly define the exposure measures and to explicitly report their validity and reliability. Almost all studies presented a clear definition of the outcome measures, which in most cases were shown as valid and reliable. Two studies (Dumitrache et al., Citation 2012 ; Yan et al., Citation 2017 ) briefly stated the outcome measures without providing detail on their validity. All studies administered self-report questionnaires, which is a potential source of social desirability bias (Yu & Tse, Citation 2012 ). Risk of bias and procedures to reduce this were inadequately considered in most study reports. In the only cohort study (Vernon et al., Citation 2017 ), participants were assessed annually over three years, but the researchers did not measure exposure at baseline.
Analysis of results
Key findings of the studies were classified into four common domains of exposure to social media: time spent, activity, investment and addiction. Time spent refers to the amount of time that users spent on social media. Activity can be defined as the quality and quantity of users’ engagement and interaction with social media sites and other users. Investment refers to the act of putting effort and time into social media whereas addiction refers to the state of being dependent on social media. For each domain we discuss the relationship with depression, anxiety and psychological distress, with reference to confounding, mediating or moderating variables if measured.
The studies produced opposing evidence on the relationship between time spent on social media and mental health problems. With an Australian sample, O’Dea and Campbell ( Citation 2011 ) found an inverse correlation for psychological distress; no relationship between frequency of social media use and depressed mood was reported by Neira and Barber ( Citation 2014 ) in another study in Australia, and Banjanin et al. ( Citation 2015 ) in Serbia. By contrast, Sampasa-Kanyinga and Lewis ( Citation 2015 ) in Canada found that daily social media use of over two hours was associated with psychological distress. A study of 10,930 adolescents from six European countries by Tsitsika et al. ( Citation 2014 ) showed a positive relationship between heavy social media use and both depression and anxiety. Yan et al. ( Citation 2017 ) found that time spent on social media was associated with anxiety in Chinese adolescents.
Frison and Eggermont ( Citation 2016 ) found that both active and passive use of Facebook, in a sample of Belgian high school pupils, correlated with an increased frequency of depressed mood. In a study of 113 adolescent-parent dyads, Barry et al. ( Citation 2017 ) found that data from parents showed correlation between adolescents’ social media activities (i.e. number of accounts, frequency of checking for messages) and both anxiety and depression. However, Banjanin et al. ( Citation 2015 ) did not find any relationship between social media activities (i.e. number of ‘selfies’) and depression in Serbian high school pupils.
Dumitrache et al. ( Citation 2012 ) found a significant correlation between the number of identity-related information on Facebook profiles and depressive tendencies in adolescents. The studies by Neira and Barber ( Citation 2014 ) and by Vernon et al. ( Citation 2017 ), both using secondary data from the Youth Activity Participation Study of Western Australia, investigated the relationship between investment in social media and depressed mood. The cross-sectional study by Neira and Barber ( Citation 2014 ) showed that investment in social media sites was associated with an increased depressed mood. Vernon et al. ( Citation 2017 ) conducted a longitudinal investigation and found an association between problematic social media investment and depressed mood, with sleep disruption as a mediating variable.
Three studies focused on addictive behaviour. Hanprathet et al. ( Citation 2015 ) found a significant association between Facebook addiction and depression among 972 high school pupils in affluent districts in Thailand. A study of Chinese secondary school students by Li et al. ( Citation 2017 ) showed a mediating influence of insomnia on the statistically significant relationship between social media addiction and depression. In another study in China, Wang et al. ( Citation 2018 ) found that social networking sites addiction was positively associated with depression; rumination mediated the relationship between social networking sites addiction and depression while self-esteem moderated this mediating effect. In other words, low self-esteem compounded the impact of addiction on depression through rumination.
Four studies measured the effect of gender in the relationship between social media-related variables and mental health outcomes. Neira and Barber ( Citation 2014 ) found that social media might have negative aspects for female youth while being a positive leisure activity for male youth. Frison and Eggermont ( Citation 2016 ) found that girls who passively use Facebook and boys who actively use Facebook in a public setting were more likely to be affected by the negative impacts of Facebook. Banjanin et al. ( Citation 2015 ) did not find any significant effect of gender in the relationship between depression and time spent on social media. Similarly, Barry et al. ( Citation 2017 ) did not find any change in the analysis when controlling for gender in the relationship between social media use and depression as well as between social media use and anxiety.
Two studies measured the effect of age. Tsitsika et al. ( Citation 2014 ) found a significant effect of age in the relationship between heavy social media use and negative internalizing symptoms (anxious/depressed, withdrawn/depressed), with younger heavier social media users being more likely to experience internalizing symptoms compared to older heavier users. Banjanin et al. ( Citation 2015 ) did not find any significant age effect in the relationship between depression and time spent on social media.
This systematic review examined the evidence for a putative relationship between social media use and mental health problems in adolescents. In the 13 studies, depression was the most commonly measured outcome. The prominent risk factors for depression, anxiety and psychological distress emerging from this review comprised time spent on social media, activities such as repeated checking for messages, personal investment, and addictive or problematic use.
Although results of the studies were not entirely consistent, this review found a general correlation between social media use and mental health problems. However, most authors noted that the observed relationship is too complex for straightforward statements. Few studies were designed to explore this complexity although some assessed the effect of mediating and moderating factors. Insomnia and other sleep-related factors were most frequently reported as mediators of the relationship between social media use and depressed mood (Li et al., Citation 2017 ; Vernon et al., Citation 2017 ). Perceived social support (Frison & Eggermont, Citation 2016 ) and rumination (Wang et al., Citation 2018 ) were other mediating factors reported in the studies. Researchers suggested further investigation of these factors, and other factors such as personal traits (O’Dea & Campbell, Citation 2011 ), socio-cultural factors that influence the roles of and expectations from adolescents in family and society, environmental factors which may affect development of adolescents and social skills (Tsitsika et al., Citation 2014 ), motivations for social media use (Barry et al., Citation 2017 ; O’Dea & Campbell, Citation 2011 ), social comparison and peer feedback (Neira & Barber, Citation 2014 ), self-esteem (Banjanin et al., Citation 2015 ), contextual factors, lack of physical activity, and cyberbullying (Sampasa-Kanyinga & Lewis, Citation 2015 ).
Other important findings of this review suggest that particular attitudes or behaviours (e.g. social comparison, active or passive use of social media, motives for social media use) may have a greater influence on the symptoms of depression, anxiety and psychological distress than the frequency of social media use or the number of online friends. Although there is evidence of a relationship between time spent on social media and depression as well as social media-related activities and depression, contrary findings have also emerged. For example, Banjanin et al. ( Citation 2015 ) found no relationship between the amount of time spent on social media and depression, or between social media-related activities such as the number of online friends and the number of ‘selfies’ and depression. Similarly, Neira and Barber ( Citation 2014 ) found that while higher investment in social media (e.g. active social media use) predicted adolescents’ depressive symptoms, no relationship was found between the frequency of social media use and depressed mood. Such mixed findings might be explained by confounders, mediators and moderators as discussed above.
This systematic review also sheds light on the influence of age and sex. Although some studies found that these variables had no effect on the relationship between social media use and mental health problems, other studies showed that girls and younger adolescents are more prone to depression and anxiety. Further investigation is needed to assess the effects of age and gender.
Although the results of this systematic review contributed to the existing literature in a way of providing considerable evidence for the mental health impact of social media use by focussing on not only the symptoms of depression but also other related outcomes including anxiety and psychological distress among adolescents who are at higher risk of developing anxiety and depression. Several limitations in the evidence emerged from included studies and review process have been identified. First, 12 out of 13 studies did not answer the review question since they were cross-sectional and unable to determine a causal relationship between the variables of interest. Looking evidence emerged from cross-sectional studies, it is not possible to decide whether social media use causes depression, anxiety and psychological distress, or whether those with depression, anxiety and psychological distress are more likely to spend more time on social media; have addictive and problematic social media use behaviour; have negative interaction with social media; and invest on social media. Only one longitudinal study (Vernon et al., Citation 2017 ) investigated the causal relationship between problematic social media use and change in depressed mood, but this study has also limited to show evidence whether social media use causes depressed mood in adolescents. The study did not use a control and a comparison group to differentiate those who exposed to social media sites and those who not. Therefore, it is difficult to determine whether a change in depressed mood was more in those who exposed to social media more compared to those who less or not.
Second, small sample size and the use of convenience sampling in some studies limited the representativeness of and generalizability to a larger adolescent population. Third, all studies included in this review used self-report measures which may not provide reliable outcomes because of some sources of risk of bias. Participants may show positive self-presentation by over- or under-reporting their social media-related behaviours and some mental health-related items, which may directly or indirectly lead to social desirability bias, information bias and reporting bias. Another identified limitation was that some studies made an investigation towards only Facebook use over other social media sites, which also causes a significant bias and limits the generalizability of findings to other social media sites. Finally, despite the fact that the proposed relationship between social media-related variables, depression, anxiety and psychological distress is complex, few studies investigated mediating factors that may contribute or exacerbate this relationship. Further investigations are needed to explain the underlying factors that help determine why social media has negative impact on some adolescents’ mental health whereas it has no or positive affect on others’ mental health.
The impact of social media use on incidence of depression, anxiety and psychological distress among adolescents, as examined by this review, is likely to be multifactorial. It is important to distinguish between the terms used for the relationship. It is fair to say that there is an ‘association’ between social media use and mental health problems, on the basis that this means a socially constructed reality. But this is not necessarily scientifically valid. Objective researchers investigate correlations rather than accepting socially assumed truths. Correlation is statistical, not phenomenal. Thirdly, there is causation, which requires directional evidence. The latter has not been adequately investigated in this topic, and we must, therefore, state that the relationship is correlational but not conclusively causative.
Key findings of included studies were classified into four categories of exposure to social media: time spent; activity; investment; and addiction. All these categories were found as correlated with depression, anxiety and psychological distress, with an acknowledgement for the complexity of these relationships. Although there are studies which investigated mediating and moderating factors that may contribute or exacerbate the proposed relationship, there are still several underexplored mediators and moderators, which may explain the direction of this relationship. We also identified gaps in literature in terms of methods, study design and sampling. Causality was unclear due to the cross-sectional study design used in almost all studies and the lack of comparison group in the cohort study. Also, the number of quantitative studies in literature is substantially higher than qualitative studies. Through this systematic review, we hope we contribute to the existing literature in the way of addressing the gaps and highlighting the importance of the phenomenon of the mental health impact of social media use on adolescents.
Related Research Data
The authors would like to thank Dr Sorina Daniela Dumitrache who supplied us the full-text of their study which was not available online. The authors also declare that there is no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
Notes on contributors
Betul keles, niall mccrae, annmarie grealish.
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