Increased social media use in young adults can lead to a greater risk of developing depression within a six-month period, an American study has found.

Those who went on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram for over 300 minutes every 24 hours were 2.8 times more likely to become depressed within six months, when compared to young people who used social media for less than 120 minutes per day.

It the first time a large study conducted across the whole of America has shown an association between depression and use of social media use over time.

The study by University of Arkansas and University of Pittsburgh was led by Professor Brian Primack, who said: “Most prior work in this area has left us with the chicken-and-egg question. We know from other large studies that depression and social media use tend to go together, but it’s been hard to figure out which came first.

“This new study sheds light on these questions, because high initial social media use led to increased rates of depression. However, initial depression did not lead to any change in social media use.”

More than 1,000 people aged between 18 to 30 took part in the study in 2018. Depression was assessed using questionnaires and participants were also asked about their time spent on social media. Demographic variables were factored into the analysis.

Fellow researcher and co-author Dr Cesar Escobar-Viera said: “One reason for these findings may be that social media takes up a lot of time. Excess time on social media may displace forming more important in-person relationships, achieving personal or professional goals, or even simply having moments of valuable reflection.”

Social comparison could also underlie the findings of the study, according to the researchers.

Dr Jaime Sidani, who was also a co-author on the study, added: “Social media is often curated to emphasize positive portrayals. This can be especially difficult for young adults who are at critical junctures in life related to identity development and feel that they can’t measure up to the impossible ideals they are exposed to.”

The World Health Organization recently said that depression, which is linked to diabetes, was the leading global cause of disability, accounting for more disability-adjusted life years than all other mental disorders.

Professor Primack added: “These findings are also particularly important to consider in the age of COVID-19. Now that it’s harder to connect socially in person, we’re all using more technology like social media. While I think those technologies certainly can be valuable, I’d also encourage people to reflect on which tech experiences are truly useful for them and which ones leave them feeling empty.”

This research has been published online and is due to be February issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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