A review of 23 studies found that interventions to reduce problematic social media use helped to improve mental wellbeing
"As primary care physicians, we should proactively explore social media use and its effects on mental health in patients who present with anxiety and/or low mood in order to give those patients the opportunity to benefit from treatment including some of the more effective interventions outlined in our review.” Dr Patricia Schartau, GP and co-author of UCL study
Depressed patients who overuse social media should be offered therapy to reduce usage, University College London (UCL) researchers have recommended.
The UCL academics reviewed 23 studies that looked at interventions for people whose social media use was problematic. The research, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found that people who limited their use of social media saw improvements in levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
“Problematic” use was defined by the researchers as “when a person’s pre-occupation with social media results in a distraction from their primary tasks and the neglect of responsibilities in other aspects of their life”.
Previous research, they said, had suggested that social media use “can become problematic when it starts to interfere with a person’s daily life and leads to poor mental wellbeing, including depression, anxiety, stress and loneliness.”
They note that previous research has suggested that 17.4% of social media users are affected by some form of problematic social media use, and that it is “most prevalent in adolescents and young adults.”
Examining the impact of social media use interventions on the mental wellbeing of adults across the 23 studies, the researchers found that 39% showed that interventions relating to social media use improved mental wellbeing.
Therapy-based interventions were most effective, they found, improving mental health in 83% of studies compared to abstaining from social media (25%) or limiting the use of platforms (20%).
Depression was the most investigated condition, with 70% of studies showing an improved outcome following intervention.
Therapy-based approaches tend to use therapeutic techniques such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or group psychological counselling to prompt reflection on behaviours, thoughts, and feelings relating to social media and consideration of time management, the authors said. These include weekly group psychological counselling and CBT diaries to help students manage their social media use by “focusing on how they spend their time and how they can improve their relationships and communication skills offline”.
Dr Ruth Plackett of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Health, who is also lead author of the study, said: “Mental health issues are on the rise, as is the number of people who use social media. Health and care professionals should be aware that reducing time spent on social media is unlikely to benefit mental wellbeing on its own.
“Instead, taking a more therapy-based approach and reflecting on how and why we are interacting with social media and managing those behaviours could help improve mental health.”
GP Dr Patricia Schartau, also an author on the study, added: “As primary care physicians, we should proactively explore social media use and its effects on mental health in patients who present with anxiety and/or low mood in order to give those patients the opportunity to benefit from treatment including some of the more effective interventions outlined in our review.”
The researchers note, however, that current experimental research is of low quality, “with issues of selection bias making it difficult to generalize the findings.” They add that “further experimental and longitudinal research is needed with representative samples to investigate who may benefit most from social media use interventions”. They also argue, however, that health and care professionals “should be aware of the growing evidence that reducing social media use alone is unlikely to benefit mental well-being.” Taking a more therapy-based approach, and reflecting on “how and why individuals are interacting with social media” and managing these behaviours could help to improve mental wellbeing.
They hope their findings will help to develop guidance and recommendations for policy makers and clinicians on how best to manage problematic social media use.
This is an important study. Although we know that social media can offer benefits in terms of making connections with other people, overuse of social media is linked with conditions such as depression and anxiety. It is useful to see a review of research showing that therapeutic interventions to tackle social media use can help reduce symptoms of mental illness and improve mood. As the researchers say, however, these interventions need to focus, not just on reducing social media use, but helping people reflect on the reasons for using social media and think about how to manage their time differently.