Among American adults, 65% used social networking sites in 2015, which is a massive increase from just 7% in 2005. But a new study finds that the more time young adults use social media, the higher their chances are of being depressed.
The research comes from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania and is published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.
Previous studies have investigated the potentially nefarious mental health effects of using social media sites such as Facebook, Tumblr and Google Plus.
One such study from 2015 saw researchers concluding that social media can cause anxiety and depression, which could lead to poor sleep quality, intensifying the problem.
And another study, published earlier this year, suggested that social media use and sleep disturbances are linked.
However, the researchers from this latest study say that previous investigations have come up with mixed results, have been limited by small samples and have focused on individual social media sites, rather than the myriad platforms that today's young adults use.
According to the team, the new study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is the first nationally representative study to investigate the links between social media use - across a wide range of platforms - and depression.
Frequency and amount of time on social media implicated
To conduct their study, in 2014, senior author Dr. Brian Primack and colleagues used questionnaires from 1,787 adults in the US aged 19-32, in order to ascertain their social media use. The questionnaires asked about the 11 most popular social media sites at the time: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
The researchers also used an established depression assessment tool.
They found that, on average, participants used social media for 61 minutes per day, and they visited social media accounts 30 times per week.
Of the participants, more than a quarter had "high" indicators of depression, and there were significant associations between social media use and depression - whether the social media use was classed in terms of total time spent or frequency of visits.
In detail, the researchers found that the participants who checked social media most frequently during the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression, compared with those who checked least frequently.
Additionally, the participants who spent the most total time on social media had 1.7 times the risk of depression, compared with those who spent less time on social media sites.
Commenting on their findings, Dr. Primack says:
"Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use."
He and his team say their findings could guide public health interventions to tackle depression, which is on track to become the leading cause of disability by 2030 in high-income countries.
Cause and effect cannot be established
It is important to note that, while these findings are significant, they cannot establish cause and effect. The team controlled for other factors that may contribute to depression, but lead author Lui yi Lin says:
"It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void."
She adds that exposure to social media could cause depression, which could then prompt more use of social media.
Some social media platforms have enforced their own preventive measures. For example, on Tumblr, when a user searches for tags that indicate a mental health issue - such as "depressed" or "suicidal" - the site redirects them to a message that asks, "Everything OK?" and then offers links to resources.
"Our hope is that continued research will allow such efforts to be refined so that they better reach those in need," concludes Dr. Primack.
Medical News Today previously investigated how social media affects our mental health and well-being.