Abstract: Does Social Media Impact Mental Health? Linking Social Media Use with Emotional Experiences in Daily Life

◆ Renwen Zhang, Northwestern University
◆ Jiancheng Ye, Northwestern University
◆ Madhu Reddy, Northwestern University
◆ David Mohr, Northwestern University

Social media are intricately woven into the fabric of daily life. Today, around 70 percent of Americans use social media to connect with one another, engage with news content, share information and entertain themselves (Pew, 2019). However, social media are often blamed for the rise in mental health problems among teens and young adults, leading to increased depressive symptoms (e.g., Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2018). Yet, the story might be the other way around. Recent studies have shown that individuals are more likely to use social media when they experience stressful situations or elevated depressive symptoms (Zhang, 2017), as evidenced by social media posts about negative emotions or experiences (Bazarova, Choi, Whitlock, Cosley, & Sosik, 2017).

One possible reason for the inconsistent findings is that social media use is largely dynamic, emergent, and deeply intertwined with individual’s everyday emotional experiences. Yet, with a few exceptions, research on social media and emotions have neglected the role of the immediate emotional context of social media use. Given that social media function both as a long-term social archive and a “live” platform for social interactions, these uses may produce distinct emotional outcomes (Kaun & Stiernstedt, 2014). Moreover, prior research on social media and mental health has primarily focused on a singular platform, but social media users often incorporate multiple platforms into their communication practices (Boczkowski, Matassi, & Mitchelstein, 2018). Thus, it is important to examine individuals’ emotional experiences associated with multiple social media platforms.

This study aims to examine how social media use is associated with individuals’ daily mood and stress, as well as longer-term symptoms of depression and anxiety. It maps out the emotional and temporal contexts of social media use and its implications for mental health. A total of 208 participants across the U.S. were enrolled in the study for six weeks. They installed an Android application for monitoring phone sensor data such as app use and an app that sends ecological momentary assessment (EMA) surveys about their current mood and stress three times a day. Participants also reported depression and anxiety symptoms at the outset of this study and in Week 6. We first conducted a content analysis of the 28 social media platforms recorded, categorizing them into social network sites (SNSs) and instant messaging (IM) services. Liner mixed-model analysis was used to examine the relationships between social media, daily mood and stress, and mental health.

The results show that individuals’ mood and stress fluctuated greatly on a daily basis. Negative mood and level of stress were positively associated with the intensity of social media use, including SNSs and IM. Moreover, when participants were highly stressed, they were more likely to use a greater number of different social media platforms. This suggests the correlation between emotion and social media multiplexity. However, neither the intensity nor the multiplexity of social media use was associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety over 6 weeks, debunking the negative impact of social media on mental health documented in extant literature.