Depression.
Anxiety. Jealousy.
Loneliness. 

Researchers claim those are all side effects of social media use. As the use of social media has increased, so has the research around it. One of the most common claims from researchers is that social media causes depression, specifically in young adults. 


According to numerous studies, the more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. Nick Bowman, associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, argues that researchers should consider the way social media is used rather than how often or how much it is used. “There are lots of people — scientists, parents and policymakers — who are claiming that there is definitive proof that using social media causes depression,” Bowman said. “But these claims tend to ignore a lot of factors.”

According to Bowman, one factor that is most often ignored is the social media user. For him, researchers are looking at social media through a very basic stimulus-response model, which assumes that the stimulus (here, social media) has a direct, power, and universal causal impact on the response (here, depression). It’s a model that he and his team in the Interaction Lab, or #ixlab, are working to dispel. 

“We’re different people, all of us, and those differences affect how we’re influenced by media,” Bowman said. “You and I can respond to the same stimulus in very different ways. Even in traditional media like a newspaper, we can all read the same article and respond to it very differently. As different people, we all use social media for a variety of reasons — some are more active and chat with friends and family, while others are more passive and might simply read other people’s updates, and some people are very private and selective with what they share while others are more public and open.” 

Bowman, along with communication studies PhD student Jennifer Knight, has been conducting research that focuses on the many different ways that young adults, such as college students, are using social media to determine whether or not there is reason to believe social media causes depression. “As a result of this project, I was able to develop a strong line of research in social media and mental health,” Knight said. “I now feel like I have a good understanding of the research process, and will be able to continue to develop based on this solid foundation that I have created with (Bowman).” 

"It’s really important that we realize that social media are basic tools for human communication. Humans have a natural desire to interact, and social media is just another way that people communicate. Using computers to talk to each other is not a corruption in human communication that only highlights the worst in people."
- Nick Bowman


In a fall 2016 study, Bowman and Knight surveyed about 1,200 undergraduates. In their survey, they asked about the types of platforms students used, how they used them, how often they used them and how important they are to the students. Rather than seeing social media linked to depression, Bowman and Knight discovered that students are using social media positively. “Students were using Snapchat for social support,” Bowman said. “They were logging in to talk to their friends about stressful and emotional situations on campus to get feedback and advice. This told us that maybe different social media platforms have different social structures.” 

Findings from this study have been well-received by the scientific community, and invited for presentations at several conferences, including the Eastern Communication Association conference in Boston, the Association for Internet Research conference in Tartu, Estonia, and the National Communication Association conference in Dallas. Bowman hopes his research will paint a more holistic picture of social media. Social media is not a tool that replaces face-to-face interaction; instead, it adds to communication by contributing to multi-modal communication. For example, individuals might first connect over Facebook, but then they meet face-to-face and develop a meaningful relationship in which they might have in-person chats as well as online chats, depending on circumstances. “One didn’t replace the other; one sets up the other,” Bowman said. “It’s really important that we realize that social media are basic tools for human communication. Humans have a natural desire to interact, and social media is just another way that people communicate. Using computers to talk to each other is not a corruption in human communication that only highlights the worst in people.” 

There is a long history of panic around new technology. According to Bowman, this panic is caused by studying what it could do rather than what it actually does. “One hundred years ago, people said that telephones were going to lead to madness because they were going to affect your brain with waves or that phones would cause adultery because they would encourage housewives to communicate with men away from the home,” Bowman said. “New technologies always scare us, because they challenge the status quo.” 

Many people also believe social media to be a toxic environment that is not to be trusted, but their findings show social media isn’t to blame. 

“Dark behaviors certainly happen online. People bully and they engage in sexting and they do all of these terrible things, but those aren’t new,” Bowman said. “And for sure, social media is the delivery system, but the delivery system is the responsibility of those who use it, and I think it’s a hard thing to accept. Social media didn’t invent hostile and sexual communication.”

Brian Primack, a physician and director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, where Bowman is an affiliate member, collaborated with Bowman on another recent study of 1,800 nationally represented 18 to 30-year-olds. They surveyed the individuals about stress they experience while using social media. 

“The study showed that the amount that they used social media was directly related to how anxious, depressed and socially isolated they felt. We did not expect that,” Primack said. “We figured using social media might make you feel less isolated because you are constantly connecting to people. You have 700 friends — how could you be isolated? It was a pretty dramatic finding. Every increase in social media use was associated with about the same increase in depression and social anxiety.” 

However, the study does not completely prove that social media doesn’t cause depression. Instead, Bowman found that individuals who were addicted to social media were more likely to be depressed. 

“It’s not that social media is an addiction itself. Like a lot of behaviors, you can become addicted,” Bowman said. “By addiction, we don’t just mean using it too much; we mean using it maladaptively. So, it’s getting in the way of school; it’s getting in the way of sleep. It actually is getting in the way of making new friends. You start to spend more time on Facebook than you do going to class.” 

One possible reason for these feelings of isolation is the displacement effect, or how engaging in activities with minimal meaning or purpose on social media can make individuals feel like they are wasting time or lack purpose, ultimately leading to negative feelings. 

“Another possibility is social comparison, which can cause individuals to have a skewed sense of reality. If you are spending three hours on social media, you are not spending those three hours in a way that is more personally rewarding,” Primack said. “An in-person social relationship might be more valuable than this virtual relationship.”

However, a closer analysis of their data found that the links above depended on – as Bowman suggested – how people engaged the technology. For example, passively browsing other people’s social media content led to depressive outcomes whereas actively engaging with people did not. 

To help navigate these stressors, Bowman and Primack recommend that individuals become more aware of how they use social media and how much time they dedicate to it. 

“A lot of people are on autopilot when they use social media. There are apps that track how much time you spend on certain websites. They can help you recognize patterns and reflect on how you are spending your time and how you feel during that time,” Primack said. “Being more critical and monitoring and thinking about it very well might in itself be a valuable technique.” 

WVU students who experience any form of depression are encouraged to visit the Carruth Center, which offers a professional counseling services and outpatient psychiatry evaluation and treatment. Learn more about the services at well.wvu.edu.