In 1971, the first email was delivered. More than 40 years on, social media has taken the world by storm. Social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, are now used by 1 in 4 people worldwide. Such activity may seem harmless, but some researchers suggest social media may affect our mental health and well-being.
In 2012, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that Facebook use may feed anxiety and increase a person's feeling of inadequacy.
A more recent study, led by social psychiatrist Ethan Cross of the University of Michigan, found that using Facebook may even make us miserable.
"On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection," says Kross. "But rather than enhance well-being, we found that Facebook use predicts the opposite result - it undermines it."
But are such claims exaggerated? Or should we be limiting our use of social media? Medical News Today looks at the evidence.
What is social media?
In essence, social media defines an array of Internet sites that enable people from all over the world to interact. This can be through discussion, photos, video and audio.
The latest statistics show that around 42% of online adults use multiple social networking sites. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of social media users are under the age of 30, although the number of older users is on the rise. Around 45% of Internet users aged 65 or older now use Facebook, increasing from 35% in 2012.
On average, Americans spent 7.6 hours a month using social media, with the majority of individuals accessing social networking sites through cell phones.
But what attracts us to social media?
In the late 1980s, the first commercial dial-up Internet service provider (ISP) was launched in the US. Internet technology has certainly advanced in the past 25 years, so much so that the words "dial-up" make most people cringe.
Of course, one of the main attractions for connecting to the Internet was, and still is, the ability to better connect with the world around us. For example, the Internet allowed us to send emails as an alternative to the timely process of sending letters through the mail. Social media has built on this premise.
This is Facebook's mission statement:
"Facebook's mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them."
This sums up what the majority of social networking sites endeavor to achieve, and there is no doubt that the general public has succumbed to the world of social media, perhaps a little too much.
Social media addiction
Recent statistics show that 63% of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40% of users log on multiple times a day.
We all have our own reasons for using social media. Some of us like to browse at other people's status updates and photos, while others use the sites as a way to vent their emotions. But according to Dr. Shannon M. Rauch, of Benedictine University at Mesa, AZ, one of the main reasons we use social media is for self-distraction and boredom relief.
"Therefore, social media is delivering a reinforcement every time a person logs on," she says.
"For those who post status updates, the reinforcements keep coming in the form of supportive comments and 'likes.' And of course we know that behaviors that are consistently reinforced will be repeated, so it becomes hard for a person who has developed this habit to simply stop."
This behavior can lead to Facebook addiction. In fact, such behavior is so common that researchers have created a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction - the Berge Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS).
The scale, developed by Dr. Cecile Andraessen and colleagues at the University of Bergen in Norway, uses six criteria to measure Facebook addiction. These include statements, such as "you spend a lot of time thinking about Facebook and planning how to use it" and "you use Facebook to forget about personal problems." The researchers say that scoring "often" or "very often" on four of the six criteria indicates Facebook addiction.
What is interesting is that the researchers found that people who are more anxious and socially insecure are more likely to use the social networking site.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that provided a potential explanation for addiction to Facebook "fame."
The research team, led by Dar Meshi of the Freie Universität in Germany, found that individuals who gained positive feedback about themselves on Facebook showed stronger activity in the nucleus accumbens of the brain - a region associated with "reward" processing. This stronger activity correlated with greater Facebook use.
From these studies, it appears that many users who are addicted to Facebook use the site as a way of gaining attention and boosting their self-esteem. But can this behavior have negative effects on mental health and well-being?
The negative impacts of social media
In 2012, Anxiety UK conducted a survey on social media use and its effects on emotions.
The survey found that 53% of participants said social media sites had changed their behavior, while 51% of these said the change had been negative.
Those who said their lives had been worsened by using social media also reported feeling less confident when they compared their achievements against their friends.
"This problem has definitely gained recent attention," says Dr. Rauch. "We know that many people on social media sites often present idealized versions of their lives, leading others to make upward social comparisons, which can lead to negative emotions."
Furthermore, the survey revealed that two thirds of participants reported difficulty relaxing and sleeping after they used the sites, while 55% said they felt "worried or uncomfortable" when they were unable to log onto their social media accounts.
In a more recent study, conducted by Dr. Rauch and colleagues, the team found that social interaction on social media sites, specifically Facebook, may have a negative impact on face-to-face encounters for individuals who already have high levels of anxiety.
Another concern regarding social media use is cyber bullying. As stated earlier in this feature, the majority of social networking users are under the age of 30, and most of these are adolescents.
According to Enough is Enough (EIE) - an organization that aims to make Internet use safer for children and families - 95% of teenagers who use social media have witnessed forms of cyberbullying on social networking sites and 33% have been victims of cyber bullying.
But Dr. Rauch believes it is not purely the use of social media that is getting out of control, but our need to be electronically connected at all times.
"I think parents should be aware that their adolescent children are living at a time where they are constantly 'on' and connected.
I would encourage any parent to explore ways to encourage or even mandate 'off' time, not just away from social media sites, but away from the devices. That is probably good advice for all of us."
Could Facebook be used to improve mental health and well-being?
Although many studies point to the negative impacts of social media on mental health and well-being, some researchers say they could have the opposite effect. Social networking sites could be a useful tool in identifying individuals with mental health issues.
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study from researchers at the University of Missouri, which claimed that Facebook activity may be an indicator of a person's psychological health.
The team found that people who shared fewer pictures on the site communicated less frequently, had a longer profile and fewer Facebook friends, and were more likely to experience social anhedonia - the inability to encounter happiness from activities that are normally enjoyable, such as talking to friends.
Another study, from the University of California San Diego (UCSD), suggests that using social media may even spread happiness. The research team, led by James Fowler of the School of Medicine at UCSD, found that happy status updates encourage other users to post happy status updates themselves.
"Our study suggests that people are not just choosing other people like themselves to associate with but actually causing their friends' emotional expressions to change," says Fowler.
"We have enough power in this data set to show that emotional expressions spread online and also that positive expressions spread more than negative."
In fact, the researchers believe that this viral spread of happiness is so strong that if magnified, it could trigger an "epidemic of well-being."
"If an emotional change in one person spreads and causes a change in many, then we may be dramatically underestimating the effectiveness of efforts to improve mental and physical health."
Overall, it appears that the exact effects of social media on our mental health and well-being remain to be seen. But one thing is certain; our use of social networking sites is unlikely to fade anytime soon.