It’s no secret that these are stressful, isolating times. You’d think that social media would be a balm for such times. We might not be able to see each other face to face, but we can connect through Facebook or Instagram, right?
Social media can help … to a point. But new research suggests that using social media too much—especially now, during the coronavirus outbreak—can lead to both depression and what researchers call “secondary trauma.”
The study, which was published Aug. 15 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior (but is just getting wider traction now), zeroed in on subjects living in Wuhan, China, the first city locked down as the COVID-19 pandemic was still in its nefarious infancy. But according to Penn State journalism professor Bu Zhong, who co-authored the study, the local Chinese media wasn’t reporting on the coronavirus at all. “If you just read the local newspaper and watched television, you didn’t get information about the virus,” he told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “This made people extremely stressed, and they began relying overwhelmingly on social media.”
Those residents of Wuhan were not alone. Previous studies found that Americans, too, turned to social media in record numbers to learn and share health information.
We know that sometimes that health info shared on Facebook or Twitter can be a bit dubious. But even if the information’s good, prolonged exposure to social media is not, according to the study. More than half of its subjects reported some level of depression, with nearly 20% of them dealing with moderate or severe depression. None had struggled with depression before. The study also found that more than 20% of its subjects experienced secondary trauma. That’s the phrase scientists use to describe what happens when people are disproportionately bothered when they hear about the trauma of others.
Drawing a line between our Facebook habits and our mental health is nothing new, of course. We’ve already known, and discussed here, the myriad ways that social media can impact our thoughts and feelings. This isn’t the first study to suggest a tie between social networks and depression. As social media users ourselves—and as caretakers of our children who, let’s face it, likely use social media more than we do—that’s important to understand.
But Zhong stressed that social media can be a good thing, too—when used in moderation.
“I think when disasters find us, we tend to go to our social networks more to get help and reach out,” he told the Inquirer. “It’s human nature. We don’t want people to think social media is bad. We just want them to know there is a balance and when you go over the threshold, like checking every five or 10 minutes, it can bring even more stress to yourself.”