The more friends a teenager has on Facebook, the more stressed they are likely to be, which may increase their future risk for depression. This is according to a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

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Researchers say the more Facebook friends a teenager has, the higher their stress levels are likely to be.

Social media use among teenagers has grown rapidly in recent years. According to a 2012 study from Pew Research Center, around 81% of teenagers aged 12-17 who are active online use some form of social media, and 71% of them use Facebook.

While such sites can help people stay connected, numerous studies have suggested their use may have negative health implications, particularly for adolescents.

In September, for example, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting social media pressure in teenagers may lead to anxiety and depression.

Now, study leader Prof. Sonia Lupien, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal in Canada, and colleagues find that the number of friends teenagers have on Facebook may impact stress levels – potentially influencing their later-life depression risk.

To reach their findings, the team recruited 88 teenagers aged 12-17 – 41 boys and 47 girls.

Fast facts about social media
  • As of this year, around 73% of Americans have a profile on at least one social media site
  • Around 60% of teenage Facebook users set their Facebook profiles to private
  • 1 in 4 teenage social media users say they post fake information on social media sites.

Learn about how social media may impact health

They asked them about their Facebook behavior, including how often they used the social media site, how many friends they had on the site, their self-promoting behavior and supporting behavior toward Facebook friends – such as “liking” the posts of others.

In addition, participants were asked to provide four samples of cortisol – a hormone released in response to stress – four times a day for 2 consecutive days.

Compared with teenagers who had fewer than 300 Facebook friends, those who had more than 300 friends on the social media site had higher cortisol levels. “We can therefore imagine that those who have 1,000 or 2,000 friends on Facebook may be subjected to even greater stress,” notes Prof. Lupien.

The researchers point out that participants’ heightened stress levels were not purely down to Facebook; other external factors played a part. However, they estimated that Facebook was responsible for around 8% of increased cortisol levels.

The researchers also identified a reduction in cortisol levels among teenagers who supported friends on the social media site by “liking” their posts or sending them encouraging words.

Prof. Lupien and her team say that, while they did not observe any symptoms of depression among participants, their findings suggest that teenagers with a higher number of Facebook friends may be at greater future depression risk.

“[…] Adolescents who present high stress hormone levels do not become depressed immediately; it can occur later on,” explains Prof. Lupien. “Some studies have shown that it may take 11 years before the onset of severe depression in children who consistently had high cortisol levels.”

The authors say further research is warranted to determine whether their findings can be replicated in children and adults who use Facebook.

“Developmental analysis could also reveal whether virtual stress is indeed ‘getting over the screen and under the skin’ to modulate neurobiological processes related to adaptation,” adds Prof. Lupien.

Contrary to this new research, a study reported by MNT earlier this year suggested social media use is not directly associated with stress.