New research has found a direct link between Facebook use and “worsening” reports of anxiety and depression among college students.
The study, published by the American Economic Review, found that in the first two and a half years of the platform’s existence, students who had an account on the site were 7% more likely to suffer from depression and 20% more likely to suffer from anxiety.
Facebook’s initial rollout in 2004 was phased, with Harvard students gaining access first, followed by Columbia, Stanford and Yale universities. The researchers used medical data from these campuses, comparing their mental health surveys to mental health surveys from college campuses without access to the platform.
Although there are hundreds of studies showing a link between social media use and worsening mental health, the researchers say their unique methodology allowed them to confirm the link.
The study, done in part by Ro’ee Levy of Tel Aviv University, suggests that “unfavorable social comparisons” are likely to blame for the increase in anxiety and depression among young people.
“Today, as we know, we all recognize social media platforms very well. They create jealousy and make it difficult for consumers to understand that what they see online does not necessarily reflect reality. How much more so 16-18 years ago when the phenomenon was completely new,” Levy told Channel 12 news.
“The effects seem to increase over time,” he said Alexei Makarin, assistant professor at MIT Sloan, another study participant.
“If, in the late fall of 2004, a freshman at Harvard had access to Facebook for one semester and a sophomore for two semesters, the effect appeared to be stronger for the sophomore who had more exposure,” Makarin told the website of MIT Sloan.
Makarin said he initially saw mental health as “just another” element of social media use, but after conducting his research, he reflected, “I realized how bad the situation really is, and that stayed with me.”
“Any insights this paper or others can offer about what’s behind this trend will be very valuable to society,” he said.
According to data from the Center for Disease Control, the suicide rate among 10- to 24-year-olds was stable from 2000 to 2007, then increased by 57% between 2007 and 2017.
Today, Facebook boasts 2.5 billion daily users. More than half of the world’s population, 4.3 billion people, maintain at least one social media account.
According to the American Economic Review, in 2021, the average user spends two and a half hours a day on social media.