Social Media Experiences and Depression

Social media and depression

Social Media Experiences and Depression

Negative experiences on social media can carry more weight than positive interactions when it comes to young adults who are reporting depressive symptoms, according to a new study published in the journal Depression and Anxiety.

The research found that positive experiences on social media were mostly unrelated to the amount of depressive symptoms in young adults. However, negative experiences were strongly and consistently associated with higher symptoms of depression. These results remind us to pay closer attention to young people’s online exchanges because, for depressed people, they may offer more harm than good. It could be critical for young people to have ways to counter the negative effects.

In August 2016, the research team surveyed 1,179 full-time students ages 18 to 30 at the University of West Virginia about their social media use and experiences. The participants also completed a questionnaire to assess their depressive symptoms. Each 10% increase in negative experiences was associated with a 20% increase in the odds of depressive symptoms, a statistically significant finding. Associations between positive experiences and symptoms of depression were neutral on average and positive social media experiences did not consistently predict a decrease in symptoms.

Social media sadnessWhile research shows that negative experiences are related to depression, we still don’t know whether the negative social media interactions actually caused the depressive symptoms or whether depressed individuals are more likely to seek out negative online interactions. As with many things in social science, the answer is probably some combination of the two, but more research will be needed to disentangle cause and effect.

Other characteristics in this study were also linked to the participants having depressive symptoms. For example, compared with men, women had 50% greater odds of having depressive symptoms. Identifying as non-white and having only completed some college, rather than completing a degree, also were associated with greater odds of depressive symptoms. All of these characteristics have previously been shown to increase a person’s likelihood of depression.

Increasing the opportunities for positive experiences on social media is still worthwhile. In other studies, engaging in certain forms of social media use has been shown to enhance communication and social connection. Certainly, there are many situations in which connecting with others in this way might actually lower depressive symptoms.

But, this research is valuable information on the risks of negative social media interactions. Especially considering that cyberbullying occurs not only among adolescents, but also among adults. Universities, workplaces, and community spaces need to increase awareness around negative social media experiences. Parents and health care professionals working with depressed young people can suggest strategies to improve the quality of online experiences, such as restricting time spent on social media to reduce the number of negative interactions and unfriending people or groups that tend to enable negative experiences.


Authored by: Kiara Moore, PhD, LCSW

Journal Reference: Brian A. Primack, Meghan A. Bisbey, Ariel Shensa, Nicholas D. Bowman, Sabrina A. Karim, Jennifer M. Knight, Jaime E. Sidani. (2018) The association between valence of social media experiences and depressive symptoms. Depression and Anxiety. Retrieved from