Use of social media like Facebook and Twitter may be feeding anxiety and increasing feelings of inadequacy, according to a small UK study reported in The Telegraph on Monday.

For the study, commissioned by the charity Anxiety UK, researchers at Salford University Business School surveyed 298 people about their use of social media and how it affected them. The charity also conducted some smaller in-depth research of its own.

Anxiety UK’s chief executive, Nicky Lidbetter reportedly said if people are already predisposed to anxiety, then it seems the added pressure from technology acts as a “tipping point” to make people “feel more insecure and more overwhelmed”.

Lidbetter said it was surprising how many of the respondents seemed unable to ignore the demands of their gadgets and found the only way to get a break from them was to switch them off.

Clinical psychologist Dr Linda Blair, told The Telegraph that one of the issues appears to be people are behaving as if technology is in control of them, instead of the other way around:

“We can switch the gadgets off but a lot of us have forgotten how to,” she added.

According to The Telegraph article, the researchers found:

  • More than half (53%) of the respondents said use of social media sites had changed their behaviour, with half (51%) of those saying the impact had been negative.
  • Those who said their lives were worsened by social media, also reported feeling less confident after comparing their achievements against those of their online friends.
  • Two thirds of respondents said they had difficulty relaxing and sleeping after using the sites.
  • More than 60% of respondents said the only way they could get a break was to switch off their gadgets: one in three said they did this several times a day.
  • Over half (55%) of respondents said they felt “worried or uncomfortable” when they couldn’t get onto their social media or email accounts.
  • A quarter of respondents said after having confrontations online they experienced difficulties in personal and work relationships.

But what is not clear from a small study like this, that also only examined links between reported use of media, emotions and behavior, is that it is hard to say what is causing what: is social media use leading to more anxiety and insecurity, or is that people already high in these traits are attracted to social media and/or less resilient to its effects?

With over 900 million users worldwide, Facebook and its use is a growing area of research. So much so, that in May 2011, a team from Norway announced it has developed a psychological scale devoted to measuring addiction to Facebook that they hope will help researchers investigating problem behavior linked to use of the social medium.

One of the scale developers, Dr. Cecilie Andraessen, from the University of Bergen (UiB), said she and her colleagues observe that people who use Facebook more tend to be the ones who score higher on the scale in terms of anxiety and social insecurity.

“We have also found that people who are anxious and socially insecure use Facebook more than those with lower scores on those traits, probably because those who are anxious find it easier to communicate via social media than face-to-face,” she told the press at the time.

The Norwegian team also found that people who are more organized and ambitious tend not to become addicted to Facebook, and are more likely to use social media as an integral part of work and networking activity.

More recently, research from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, concluded that while in theory, by helping to encourage and improve friendships, Facebook could be great for people with low self-esteem, in practice, users with low self-esteem seem to behave counterproductively, bombarding their friends with negative tidbits about their lives and making themselves less likeable.

Waterloo graduate student Amanda Forest, said people with low self-esteem may feel safe making personal disclosures on Facebook, but they may not be doing themselves any favours:

“If you’re talking to somebody in person and you say something, you might get some indication that they don’t like it, that they’re sick of hearing your negativity,” Forest told the press.

However, she said when people have a negative reaction to a post on Facebook, they seem to keep it to themselves:

“On Facebook, you don’t see most of the reactions,” said Forest.

There is also some evidence that use of social media affects mood differently to other demands.

Earlier this year, Dr Maurizio Mauri of the Institute of Human, Language and Environmental Sciences at IULM University in Milan, Italy, and colleagues, reported findings of a study where they measured 30 people’s physical and psychological responses while they used Facebook, performed a stressful task, or just relaxed, and found each of these activities appears to have a different effect on mood and arousal.

When their volunteers used Facebook, their biological responses (such as skin conductance, blood volume pulse, brainwave patterns, muscle activity, breathing activity, and pupil dilation) corresponded to what Mauri and colleagues described as the “Core Flow State”, a new concept that researchers are starting to characterize with objective measurements. Some say it is a state where people feel highly aroused and enjoying what they do, and where their skills are challenged. Others say it is a cluser of biological responses that make people want to repeat their experience.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD