Social media is hailed for its power to connect people and communities, but it can also do the opposite.
They are forums where anybody can criticize anyone else from a distance, and this degree of separation just might fuel the notion that harsh words lose potency as they hurtle through cyberspace. Do the trolls really intend to be as mean as they sometimes are?
Now, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh has found a link between negative social media experiences and symptoms of depression.
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In 2016, a team queried nearly 1,200 West Virginia University students about their social media habits and experiences as well as their depressive symptoms.
The researchers found the students’ risk of depressive symptoms increased 20 percent with each 10 percent jump in their negative social media experiences. The students self-interpreted the negative experiences, but they could have been such things as online disputes, unkind posts or being unfriended.
More research will be needed to pin down whether negative social media experiences trigger depressive symptoms, people with depressive symptoms gravitate toward negative social media activity or both. Researchers suspect it’s a little of each.
In the study’s other big takeaway, one that throws a little cold water on social media’s purported attributes, the researchers found that positive social media experiences were associated with only a small decrease in the risk of depressive symptoms.
The study was illuminating and of practical benefit; the researchers noted that clinicians treating patients for depression might consider limiting their social media exposure. The findings are consistent with what is known about bullying, mental health issues, and suicide. Harsh words can sting, sometimes for a lifetime, whether they’re delivered in person or from afar.
People who are concerned “may want to consider ways to minimize their exposure to negative social media experiences and maximize resilience to these experiences,” lead researcher Dr. Brian Primack said.
In other words: Step away from the machines, and go talk to someone.
Social media may well have the potential to be a force for good. But in the wrong hands, the evidence increasingly shows, it can do harm.This latest study is one more reason for Americans of all stripes to tone down their rhetoric.