A group of researchers in Germany looked at the connection between social media and mental health in terms of personality traits, mental health variables, and general internet use.
Social media and social networking websites are a growing part of our lives. Almost everyone we know is using some form of social networking medium. But what could be the effects of social media on our mental health?
Previous research has looked at how social networking sites affect our mental being. To this date, it’s been hard to draw any conclusions from the research. Some have determined a connection between social networking and lower mental health, while others have determined that social networking is related to more positive traits.
A team of researchers in Germany has set out to find correlates between social media and mental health in terms of personality traits, mental health variables, and general internet use. The personality traits they examined were the ‘Big Five,’ consisting of agreeableness, extraversion, neuroticism, openness, and conscientiousness. They evaluated mental health as two separate entities: one that measures the positive mental health aspects (happiness, life satisfaction, etc), and one that measures the negative mental health aspects (depression, anxiety, and stress). They also looked at the social media networks Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram, and compared them.Furthermore, they investigated the additional effects of gaming on these variables.
Negative Association between Gaming and Positive Mental Health Variables
As published in the journal PLoS ONE, with a sample of 633 freshmen from a German university, the researchers first found that there is a negative association between gaming and positive mental health variables. As the level of gaming increased, mental health decreased. However, gamers showed fewer stress symptoms, possibly due to the fact that they release their stress within the game, such as using it as a coping strategy.
Narcissism and the Internet
Frequent internet users have been shown to have higher values of self-esteem, narcissism, life satisfaction, resilience and social support. The researchers explain that there is a possibility that narcissistic individuals find reinforcements for their self-esteem via social networking, as they are highly correlated. The increase in self-esteem comes from selectively attending only to information that reinforces their self-image while ignoring the ones that contradict it. Thus, as self-esteem increases, these users feel more satisfied with their life.
For narcissistic individuals that talk about themselves online via written media, they continue to receive feedback about their concerns. They will then selectively choose the positive feedback and thus perceive high amounts of social support. Social support is significantly correlated with resilience, and these users could actually help in developing one another. Such resilience will, in turn, make them more resistant to negative feedback, which feeds back into that loop.
Internet Use Associated with Negative Personality Traits
General internet users were negatively correlated with agreeableness, which usually implies warmth and friendliness. This may be due to the anonymity factor in online interactions, where a person can say more hurtful things than they would normally say in real life. The study found that there may be a difference between the number of different social networking sites being used, and the frequency of use. Extraverted and anxious individuals seem to prefer to join in more social media websites.
While it is intuitive why extroverted people would be more active, shy people seem to join as well because social networking sites provide a forum to enhance their social status. They may sign up to an increasing number of social networking sites because this increases their chance of finding a partner for an interaction. Extraverted people also use social networking more frequently, unlike anxious individuals. Narcissism and self-esteem were also associated with increased frequency of use.
Social Media and Mental Health
Unlike previous studies, this study did not find a direct link between social media and mental health problems. Depression, anxiety, and stress were not any more significantly related to social networking beyond the above-mentioned variables. However, this study may be too generalized to make any conclusions.
The Many Faces of Facebook
Facebook was strongly associated with narcissism and extraversion. Since it is the most popular social networking site, it also increases their likelihood of finding a new partner for interactions and gain popularity and admiration. In terms of Facebook social networking and mental health, it correlated with positive aspects such as life satisfaction, resilience, and social support. This may be because the more friends on Facebook could lead to more social support online and will translate to resilience offline.
Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr
Twitter membership was negatively associated with positive mental health, and positively associated with depression, anxiety, and stress. Perhaps the written format of this site seemed to attract people with negative mental health so that they could share their thoughts and experiences. Even though Twitter users can respond to one another, it is much less personal and therefore does not involve the social support found in Facebook interactions. The results were similar with Tumblr. Instagram showed a correlation with extraversion, life satisfaction, and social support. However, there was no analysis of the nature of the photos, which may limit the study.
Study limitations include the fact that this is a correlation study, and one cannot draw any conclusions regarding causality or directionality. It is also problematic that they used self-reports, as self-reports are subject to social desirability, which is when the individual answers the way they think others will expect them to answer. It is also hard for a person to accurately report how much they use Facebook since it is difficult to remember. The sample of participants was also similar, being students from the same university, and therefore cannot be generalized to the entire population. Future research should focus on eliminating these issues, especially working on longitudinal studies.
Written by Maor Bernshtein
Reference: Brailovskaia J, Margraf J (2018) What does media use reveal about personality and mental health? An exploratory investigation among German students. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0191810.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191810