Feeling Down? Support Via Social Media May Not Be Enough
Looking for a morale boost or some solid encouragement? If so, socializing the old-fashioned way -- live and in-person -- will likely do more to lift your spirits than online interactions, new research suggests.
It's the key takeaway from a survey of more than 400 college undergraduate students.
"We wanted to see if the social support provided over social media was associated with better mental health," said study leader Dar Meshi. He is an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University, in East Lansing.
While engaging with others on social media didn't hurt when it comes to tackling depression, anxiety or loneliness, it also didn't help -- at all.
In contrast, the survey showed that reaching out to others face-to-face did seem to improve one's mental health.
"Only real-life social support was linked to better mental health," Meshi said.
The researchers don't know why, but they have a theory: Typical interactions over social media don't allow for a deeper connection and support, which may be needed to protect against negative mental health.
Participants in the online survey ranged from 18 to 38 years old, with an average age of just over 20. All said they regularly used at least one social media platform.
While social media addiction is not considered an official clinical diagnosis, the study authors wanted to learn if online habits might be excessive or problematic.
For example, students were asked how much, and for what purposes, they used social media. Certain questions were designed to reveal addictive red flags, such as being preoccupied or moody with respect to social media use, and/or experiencing withdrawal when not online.
History of depression, anxiety and social isolation were also assessed, along with the frequency and success with which students sought social support online and in-person.
In the end, Meshi's team found that students who appeared to show signs of online "addiction" tended to get more of their social support virtually than in-person.
But while in-person social support was linked to reduced depression, isolation and anxiety, online support was not, the findings showed.
"If a person is struggling with excessive social media use, they would likely benefit from reaching out to real-life individuals for support," Meshi said.
So does that mean that the coronavirus pandemic undermined the mental health of those who might otherwise have sought in-person engagement?
"Unfortunately, we don't know the answer," Meshi said. (The survey ran from January to April 2020, but only those who responded before the pandemic began were included in the analysis.)
An expert who was not involved with the study said the findings could be expected.
The researchers point to "a typical vicious cycle whereby trying to get something that you want -- social support -- using an ineffective strategy -- social media -- not only doesn't make you feel better, but actually makes you feel worse," said James Maddux, senior scholar at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va.
Maddux said the best explanation for it is that online interactions cannot possibly have the immediacy and impact of live interactions -- "that is, actual face-to-face conversations."
Feeling "supported" is largely a matter of feeling truly understood, he noted.
"I think that what's missing in virtual interactions and virtual relationships is the ability to monitor the subtleties of another person's behavior," Maddux said.
In other words, it's not just what people say that matters, but how they say it: The tone of voice, facial expressions and other subtle cues that help people truly understand what someone else is trying to convey, Maddux explained.
Being able to give and receive all of those clues in person seems to be critical to effective communication and to helping those who need it feel truly supported, he added.
The findings were published online recently in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
Learn more about social media and mental health from the McLean Hospital.
SOURCES: Dar Meshi, PhD, assistant professor, advertising and public relations, and neuroscience faculty, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.; James Maddux, PhD, university professor emeritus and senior scholar, Center for the Advancement of Well-Being, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Addictive Behaviors, April 29, 2021, online