Social media may harm mental health, study confirms

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In a study from Bocconi University, scientists found the introduction of Facebook in American colleges led to a 9% increase in depression and a 12% increase in generalized anxiety disorder among students.

The likely cause: unfavourable social comparisons.

They observed a causal effect from the use of Facebook to the deterioration of young people’s mental health.

The team used a dataset with the dates in which Facebook was introduced at 775 U.S. colleges and the answers to seventeen consecutive waves of the National College Health Assessment (NCHA).

They estimated an average trend of mental health issues in American colleges and observed how students at each college departed from this trend after the introduction of Facebook.

The team estimated that Facebook was responsible for a 9% increase in depression and a 12% increase in generalized anxiety disorder.

Facebook, according to such estimates, can be considered the cause of almost a quarter of the increase in cases of severe depression recorded between 2000 and 2019 among American college students.

In the short-to-medium run, the negative effects of Facebook on mental health were found to increase with length of exposure to the platform.

Additional evidence suggests that the mechanism that leads from Facebook use to worse mental health is the increase in unfavorable (and sometimes misleading) social comparisons.

The effects are particularly pronounced for students who might already view themselves as comparing unfavorably to their peers, such as students who live off-campus—and therefore are more likely to be excluded from on-campus social activities—students of lower socioeconomic status, and students not belonging to fraternities/sororities.

If you care about mental health, please read studies that ultra-processed foods may make you feel depressed, and Vitamin D could help reduce depression symptoms.

For more information about mental health, please see recent studies about vegetarianism linked to higher risk of depression, and results showing how mindfulness and dance can stimulate a part of the brain that can improve mental health.

The study was conducted by Luca Braghieri et al and published in American Economic Review.

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