New Research Establishes Causal Connection between Social Media and Depression

by Vins
Published: Updated:

From home computers to smartphones, the Internet has become more and more accessible.  Two news stories, published by Forbes and Healthline in late 2018, raised important questions about whether the benefits of social media outweigh the negative effects and it reviewed some of the most recent research on this topic.

Various studies have suggested that the overuse of social media can lead to increased levels of depression. And if a heavy social media user tries to break their habits, the “fear of missing out” from reduced use can result in withdrawal-like symptoms including increased anxiety, a rise in blood pressure, and even feeling “phantom vibrations.” These symptoms can result in negative feedback loops where depression leads to self-isolation, further potentiating harmful effects.

As Gigen Mammoser reported, although studies have “linked the use of social media to depression, anxiety, poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, inattention, and hyperactivity,” especially in teens and adolescents, “these studies are almost entirely of an observational or correlational nature, meaning they don’t establish whether or not one is causing the other.”

Those who are skeptical of such studies often point out that higher depression levels among those who use social media frequently could be because “those who are more depressed and lonely are more inclined to use social media as a way of reaching out.”

However, as Mammoser reported, a new study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania may be “the first time a causal link has ever been established in scientific research.”

Thr study involved 143 undergraduates who were assigned to one of two groups. Students assigned to the first group continued their regular use of Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram, while members of the other group limited their use of each platform to ten minutes per day (thirty minutes total). As expected, the researchers found that people who limited their social media use to thirty minutes felt significantly better after the three-week period, reporting reduced depression and loneliness, especially those who came into the study with higher levels of depression.

“What we found overall is that if you use less social media, you are actually less depressed and less lonely, meaning that the decreased social media use is what causes that qualitative shift in your well-being,” Jordyn Young, a co-author of the paper and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, told Healthline.

A June 2018 Pew Research report indicated that smartphone ownership is on the rise in emerging economies around the world, suggesting that the challenges of social media use documented in the University of Pennsylvania study and other research may soon affect even more people around the world.


Alice G. Walton, “New Studies Show Just How Bad Social Media Is For Mental Health,” Forbes, November 26, 2018,

Gigen Mammoser, “Social Media Increases Depression and Loneliness,”  Healthline, December 9, 2018,

Student Researcher: Marvin Atwood (University of Vermont)

Faculty Evaluator: Rob Williams (University of Vermont)