STRESS
July 12, 2019

You Are Not Alone

The distractions of social media can be a cause for concern, but by nurturing personal relationships, it also eases psychological distress.

Much has been written about the problems associated with social media use and the internet in general, particularly among children and teens; but that may not be the whole story. A Michigan State University study finds that using Facebook, Instagram and other online platforms can actually ease adults' psychological distress.

That's because these technologies and platforms make it easier to communicate and keep relationships going.

The worrisome findings related to social media and online life tend to be about the link between time spent online and attention, cyberbullying and the way time online can isolate children and teens, encouraging them to spend more time on virtual relationships than in-person interactions.

Yes, social media can lead to cyberbullying and social isolation, but it can help family relationships thrive, too.

“Taking a snapshot of the anxiety felt by young people today and concluding that a whole generation is at risk because of social media ignores more noteworthy social changes, such as the lingering effects of the Great Recession, the rise in single child families, older and more protective parents, more kids going to college and rising student debt,” said researcher, Keith Hampton, professor of media and information at Michigan State, in a statement.

So he looked at the more than 13,000 relationships described by adult participants in the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the longest-running household survey in the world. In 2015 and 2016 the survey included a series of questions about the use of communication technologies and psychological distress. Media users were 63 percent less likely to experience serious mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, from one year to the next. This was particularly true if a person was connected to extended family members on social media.

“Today, we have these ongoing, little bits of information popping up on our cell phones and Facebook feeds, and that ongoing contact might matter for things like mental health,” Hampton believes. Being able to check in and call on the support and advice of family members appears to offer a buffer against psychological distress.

The study doesn't give social media a free pass, but it suggests time online deserves a more thoughtful appraisal. Kids still need to be monitored when it comes to the amount of time they spend and the type of content they pursue online, and these are risks for adults, too. Hampton points out that the type of technologies people and their extended family members use can also make a difference in whether media increases or reduces psychological distress; so do the quality of one's family relationships. And if a family member is experiencing psychological distress, it may affect those with whom he or she shares a connection on social media.

The study is published in the Journal of Computer Mediated-Communication.

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