Beware Misleading Headlines About Social Networks and Depression

social networks photo
Photo by Frau Hölle

I’m sure by now you’ve all seen the headlines about a recent study that seemed to show a tie between the amount of time spent on social media and depression. Unfortunately, almost all of those stories came with blaring headlines proclaiming that the study had shown that using social networks led to depression, and then most people on social media who never read past the headline, shared them and started telling everyone about this “fact”.

The reality, though, isn’t quite that simple. As this article, which chose the less sensational headline “The Complex Link Between Social Media and Depression” makes clear, the study shows that yes, people with depression tend to spend more time on social networks, but that doesn’t mean using social networks leads to depression. In fact, had you bothered to read the other stories, you may have seen the same quote from the study’s author

But does greater involvement with social media actually promote depression? Or, are people who are already depressed simply more likely to gravitate to social media? The jury, according to the study authors, is still out.

“One strong possibility is that people who are already having depressive symptoms start to use social media more, perhaps because they do not feel the energy or drive to engage as many in direct social relationships,” said senior study author Dr. Brian Primack. He is the director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health at the University of Pittsburgh.

“However, there are also a few reasons why increased social media use may lead to more depressive thoughts,” Primack added. “For example, people who engage in a lot of social media use may feel they are not living up to the idealized portraits of life that other people tend to present in their profiles. This phenomenon has sometimes been called ‘Facebook depression.’ ”

Primack also suggested that there might be a “vicious circle” at play, in which depressed people turn to social media only to have their depression worsen.

And the study only showed an association, and not a cause-and-effect relationship, between social media use and depression.

Remember, just because there’s an association between two things, we cannot assume a cause and effect relationship. Most media reports about scientific study miss this, and unfortunately, most people take that same approach, they see a scientific study that associates two different things, and assume one causes the other, which is not at all what the study concludes.

And then there share that information all over social media and depress all their friends who are connected to them on social networks, creating a nice self-fulfilling prophecy too. 😉


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