Facebook use is a predictor of depression

A pair of social scientists from UCSD and Yale conducted an NIH study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology on the link between Facebook use and mental health, drawing on data from the Gallup Panel Social Network Study combined with "objective measures of Facebook use" and self-reported data for 5,208 subjects, and concluded that increased Facebook use is causally linked with depression.

The authors argue that because they drew on longitudinal data, they were able to account for the possibility that depressed people turn to Facebook (rather than Facebook use causing depression). I read through the explanation a few times and I think I understand it, but I lack the statistical chops to say for sure whether this holds water.

The associations between Facebook use and compromised well-being may stem from the simple fact that those with compromised well-being may be more likely to seek solace or attempt to alleviate loneliness by excessively using Facebook in the first place. However, the longitudinal models accounted for well-being measures in wave t when including Facebook use to predict the well-being outcomes in wave t + 1. Also, in our final models, we included degree (or real-world friendship counts) to adjust for this possibility, and the results remained intact. This provides some evidence that the association between Facebook use and compromised well-being is a dynamic process. Although those with compromised well-being may be more likely to use Facebook, even after accounting for a person's initial well-being, we found that using Facebook was associated with a likelihood of diminished future well-being. The exception to this is the case of BMI. Our cross-sectional models showed a strong correlation between Facebook use and higher BMI. All 3 of these associations dropped out in our prospective models, however, which suggests that those with higher BMI may be more frequent Facebook users, though it is unlikely that Facebook use itself is the cause of higher BMI.

Of the total sample of Gallup survey respondents, a small proportion allowed use of their Facebook data. Those respondents were different from those who did not. They were younger and had more real-world friendships. In addition, there were proportionally more women. These are characteristics that are consistent with Facebook users in general (41). This group is also potentially less concerned with online privacy, as indicated by their allowing access to their Facebook data. How much our results may have changed as a result of these characteristics is hard to say. Although we controlled for age and sex in our analyses, we did not control for privacy concerns, so we cannot assess whether this unmeasured characteristic may have confounded our results. However, because participants in this sample had more friends overall, it may have led to an underestimation of our associations, because the positive association of more real-world friendships may have ameliorated the associations of Facebook usage.

A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel [Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis/Harvard Business Review]

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  1. I read that paragraph and it does not say that facebook causes depression, it says that the relationships between lower well-being and facebook use is dynamic. We can't tell from that whether high facebook use puts a person without other indicators of depression at higher risk of depression or whether it's just that facebook and depression are a self-reinforcing spiral.

    But also, that title on the linked article is very misleading. A link between facebook use and depression in the general population does not mean that if you use facebook, you will feel worse. Though, to be fair to the study, that might be like how if you smoke, you might not get lung cancer. I don't see the correlation being that strong, though.

  2. I wonder how Facebook compares to binge-watching Netflix, or regular TV. It's a low-energy thing you can do to kill time, but also to some extent, shows you idealized images of people who have the illusion of having their shit together, and/or is a source of bad news and a depressing (in the unscientific sense) amount of human stupidity.

  3. Maybe depressed people are self medicating with Facebook.

    From my own experience with long term depression, I find that on my bad days I will have to try my best to distract myself from what my brain wants to think about. Facebook is a very easy way to do this. Television used to be another way of doing it.

    Personally I use video games and fiction books. Facebook tends to make me feel worse, so I avoid it as much as possible.

  4. There is the flipside of that, too, in that you're constantly comparing yourself to others on FB, who often post only the best moments, so that you totally feel inadequate by how great their lives are going compared to yours. Either way, it's a recipe for depression.

Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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