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expert reaction to study looking at social media use and depression in adults

A study published in Jama Network Open looks at Social Media Use and Self-reported Symptoms of Depression in US adults.


Dr Bob Patton, Lecturer in Clinical Psychology, University of Surrey, said:

“This was a survey of over 5000 American adults who did not initially report depressive symptoms. The researchers explored levels of depression and usage of social media (SM) at two points over time, finding that there was an association between SM usage and a clinically significant increase in levels of depression.

“The study does not suggest that exposure to SM was the underlying cause of the increase in depressive symptoms, however the findings support other published research with similar findings among adolescents. Factors that we know are related to the effect of SM exposure on psychological wellbeing (the duration and content of the media accessed) were not explored in this research.

“So overall while the findings strengthen the evidence base around the potential harmful effects of Social Media on mental health, they do not provide further insight into the complex relationship between the two.”


Dr Rina Dutta, Reader in Suicidology and Psychiatry, King’s College London (KCL) & Consultant Psychiatrist, said:

“By reporting on more than 5,000 individuals aged 18 years and over across 50-US states, who had been surveyed on at least 2 occasions about whether they used social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube) and their rating of a nine-item depression scale, the authors concluded that certain social media use happens before “worsening” of depressive symptoms.

“The authors explicitly set out to study worsening of depressive symptoms in adults, however they selected to study those who did not report any depression at the start of the monthly surveys.  Therefore, they really studied emergence of new onset depressive symptoms assessed by a 9-item questionnaire (PHQ-9) at 2 timepoints.

“The researchers adjusted for number of people available to talk to if participants were feeling sad or depressed, number of face-to-face meetings in the past 24 hours with non-household members and whether they had viewed COVID-19 related news sources on cable, network or news websites.

“However the calendar effect of conducting the study during the COVID-19 pandemic when all States of the US had either stay-at-home orders or advisories, and severe restrictions on schooling, eating out and non-essential shopping means these results might not have been found pre-pandemic and may not hold in the real world at a later date and the authors acknowledge this.

“This research takes a step further than the existing cross-sectional “snap-shot” view of social media use and its relationship with mental health by having 2 time points of study.  However, no conclusions can be drawn about cause and effect here, as social media use could be a marker for emergence of depressive symptoms, particularly in stressful circumstances, like the pandemic.

“The time between the first and second surveys varied for individuals: some may have had an increase in PHQ-9 within a month and others after 6-months, so time cannot be taken into consideration. We are only told that the comparison was made with their “first follow up survey” in 13 monthly waves of the study from May 2020 to May 2021.

“The duration of social media use and nature of interactions could not be studied, and it is these more nuanced relationships with social media that are likely to affect mental health outcomes in the real world.”


Prof Bernadka Dubicka, Honorary MAHSC Professor child and adolescent psychiatry, University of Manchester, said:

“This is an interesting study that adds to our limited data on technology and mental health. The strengths of the study are that it follows a large group of adults over time, focusing on those who weren’t depressed, and examines the differential effects of different platforms.

“However, the study raises more questions than it answers. As the authors state, they were unable to examine many additional potential vulnerabilities to depression, including a history of mental health and neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism; trauma; and additional impacts of covid-19 such as bereavement and illness.

“Over 90% of respondents did not experience a significant increase in depression, which is the take home message; however, we need to know much more about the remaining adults who may be vulnerable to the differential negative effects of digital platforms, including how they interact with digital content, as well as a better understanding of beneficial interactions.”



Association Between Social Media Use and Self-reported Symptoms of Depression in US Adults’ by Roy H. Perlis et al. was published in Jama Network Open at 16:00 UK time on Tuesday 23rd November.

DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.36113



Declared interests

Dr Rina Dutta: “I hold grant funding from MRC/MRF to study social media, smartphone use and self-harm in young people.”

Prof Bernadka Dubicka: “No COIs. Other affiliations include:

Editor in Chief Child and Adolescent Mental Health, ACAMH

Consultant Psychiatrist Pennine Care Foundation Trust

Recent chair of the child and adolescent faculty, RCPsych

Grant income from the NIHR HTA.”

None others received.

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