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Time on social media is not linked to poor mental health

It’s not the amount of time but the ways young adults use social media that may lead to poor mental health, according to a new study.

Researchers from two Florida universities found that social media habits like closely so-called ‘vaguebooking’ – writing intentionally vague but often evocative social media posts – were linked to suicidal thoughts.

Using social media this way functions as a cry for help, but other young adults get a confidence boost form social media, the study authors say.  

Their findings suggest that mental health is influenced significantly by financial and familial stressors than with the amount of time young adults spend posting or scrolling.

Time spent on social media does not predict poor mental health, according to a new study from two Florida universities

Led by Chloe Berryman of the University of Central Florida (UCF), the researchers surveyed 467 young adults about social media and their personal and emotional lives.

The surveys asked how much time each day they spent on social media, how they used it, and what role it played in their lives. The respondents also answered questions about their anxiety levels, ability to empathize, frequency of suicidal thoughts and family and social support networks.

The results indicated no significant or consistent associations between time on social media and self-reported signs of psychological distress, with the notable exception of vaguebooking.

The practice was more common among people that reported that they were lonely and who were more likely to have suicidal thoughts. 

But the authors cautioned against broader assumptions about the negative influences of social media on mental health.


Although they may not describe feeling depressed, warning signs include saying they are stressed or easily annoyed. 

Other symptoms include tearfulness, withdrawing from socializing, changes in eating habits and a lack of energy.

Physical signs are headaches, poor digestion, and muscle and joint pain. 

Stress and depression often appear together.

Like depression, stress can also cause fatigue, headache and aching muscles, as well as ulcers.


Study co-author Dr Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University says that the research is ‘consistent with prior data, but different from recent headlines.’

Earlier this week, a Columbia University study of more than 600,000 people found that depression is on the rise in the US for all age groups, but that its increase among teens is outpacing that of older adults, with 12.7 percent of people between 17 and 19 reporting feeling depressed.

The authors of that study suggested that ‘adolescents are increasingly exposed to risk factors derived from the use of new technologies, such as cyberbullying and problematic social media use.’ The Columbia researchers also hypothesized that family and economic stressors have put teens at greater risk of depression recently than in the past.

Dr Ferguson agrees that financial and family stress are important to depression levels in teens, but is more skeptical – especially in light of his most recent research – that social media has such a dramatic impact.

‘There’s nothing magical about social media use that makes you depressed or suicidal,’ he says.

Instead, Ferguson says that the way that a person uses social media is more predictive of their mental health than the amount of time they spend on it.

‘If you use social media to ruminate about how bad your life is, well, yeah, it will be associated with negative feelings, but it can also be used to improve self-confidence. [Social media] is neither good nor bad, it’s really about how you use it,’ he says.

Social media posts that fall into that category of vaguebooking typically include no specific information, but use language that is likely to make readers worry that that the poster is in some kind of psychological distress.

Vaguebooking functions essentially like a cry for help – or at least attention – and the study found that young adults that made such posts were more likely to have suicidal thoughts and report feeling lonely.

‘It really may be a risk marker for some real problems,’ says Dr Ferguson. According to his study, people who regularly vaguebook tended to have histrionic, or ‘attention-seeking’ personalities, he says.

Otherwise, ‘if people are turning to social media in order to connect with people, that doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing, or at least it doesn’t necessarily predict suicide ideation,’ he says.

Outside of vaguebooking, there were much stronger correlations in the study between depression or suicidal thoughts and factors like a strained relationships with parents.

The authors don’t deny that teen depression and suicide rates and some ways of using social media are worrisome, but Dr Ferguson says that there are ‘broader social structural issues,’ that are resulting in ‘a pervasive pessimism about the way things are going.’

He says that overly broad statements about social media and mental health are doing a ‘disservice.’

‘Every generation has something…for the last generation, it was video games, before that it was rock music and before that Elvis and comic books,’ Dr Ferguson says.

His findings support the idea that ‘media generally is not the thing that generates the big problems in society,’ he says.