While some studies have found a link between depression and social media use, there is emerging research into how social media can actually be a force for good.
Two studies involving more than 700 students found that depressive symptoms, such as low mood and feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, were linked to the quality of online interactions. Researchers found higher levels of depressive symptoms among those who reported having more negative interactions.
A similar study conducted in 2016 involving 1,700 people found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used the most social media platforms. Reasons for this, they suggested, include cyber-bullying, having a distorted view of other people’s lives, and feeling like time spent on social media is a waste.
However, as BBC Future will explore this month in our #LikeMinded season, scientists are also looking at how social media can be used to diagnose depression, which could help people receive treatment earlier. Researchers for Microsoft surveyed 476 people and analysed their Twitter profiles for depressive language, linguistic style, engagement and emotion. From this, they developed a classifier that can accurately predict depression before it causes symptoms in seven out of 10 cases.
Researchers from Harvard and Vermont Universities analysed 166 people’s Instagram photos to create a similar tool last year with the same success rate.
Humans used to spend their evenings in darkness, but now we’re surrounded by artificial lighting all day and night. Research has found that this can inhibit the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, which facilitates sleep – and blue light, which is emitted by smartphone and laptop screens, is said to be the worst culprit. In other words, if you lie on the pillow at night checking Facebook and Twitter, you’re headed for restless slumber.
Last year, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh asked 1,700 18- to 30-year-olds about their social media and sleeping habits. They found a link with sleep disturbances – and concluded blue light had a part to play. How often they logged on, rather than time spent on social media sites, was a higher predictor of disturbed sleep, suggesting “an obsessive ‘checking’”, the researchers said.
The researchers say this could be caused by physiological arousal before sleep, and the bright lights of our devices can delay circadian rhythms. But they couldn’t clarify whether social media causes disturbed sleep, or if those who have disturbed sleep spend more time on social media.