Changing the conversation about social media

woman on phone

Photo Credit: Getty Images

By David Levin
February 12, 2024

If the global pandemic has taught us anything about living online, it’s that endless scrolling on Facebook or Instagram rarely leaves us feeling better than before we started.

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of studies have shown a clear link between social media use and negative mental health in teenagers and adolescents. Likewise, adults who spend extensive amounts of time on social media also may experience a decline in overall wellbeing. A new study from Brandeis adds a subtle new twist to those findings however: As it turns out, the way that adult users’ mood changes when scrolling depends largely on how they use social media in the first place, says Xin Lin, GSAS PhD’22, the paper’s primary author. The study was published in January in the journal Research on Aging.

Like their teenage counterparts, adults who spend more hours on social media report lower levels of wellbeing than their peers, Xin says. Adults who use those same platforms to interact with close friends or family, however, show a distinct improvement in their overall mental state.

“We think it all comes down to the quality of their interactions, not just the quantity,” explains Margie Lachman, the Minnie and Harold Fierman Professor of Psychology at Brandeis, who co-authored the study with Lin. “Does the person you’re interacting with care about you? Do they understand the way you feel? Can you rely on them? If you have a serious problem, can you open up to them?” she says. Participants who could rely on strong relationships with others did not show negative effects after time spent on social media, Lachman adds.

Lin and Lachman’s paper focused on 782 individuals aged 25-75 who were surveyed in 2015 as part of a larger study on Midlife in the United States (MIDUS). At that time, participants were asked to track their media use in daily journals, rate the quantity and quality of the emotional support they gave and received from others, and assess their overall mood after using social media.

Although Lin and Lachman’s research provides valuable insight on the effects of online media use in adults — a largely understudied topic — the pair are quick to note that their findings come with a few limitations. By nature, their work can’t say if excessive time spent on social media directly results in negative emotions, for instance; it can only tell whether reports of both occur at the same time. Another complication, Lin adds, is that the data for this study was gathered before COVID, an event that dramatically shifted how many of us interact online, and before now-inescapable platforms like TikTok were part of the digital milieu.

Lin, who is now a postdoctoral researcher at Weill Cornell Medicine, plans to continue the paper’s line of study by following social media’s early adopters as they reach middle age, teasing out the medium’s long-term effects on wellbeing. In the meantime, she hopes that her study will provide some subtlety to debates about the merits of social media in society.

“There has been a lot of discussion in the news saying that people need to take time away from social media, or even stop using it entirely, in order to improve their mental health,” she says. “Our study shows that it’s important to have some nuance in the conversation. It’s not just ‘social media is really good or bad’ — we have to reframe how we talk about its impact on our wellbeing so we can maximize its benefits while reducing harm.”