Social Media Use and Psychological Well-Being: A Review by Vibhati Bhatia

Personal Commentary

When reflecting on aspects of everyday life, I recognised the large impact of social media and social networking websites in their dominance in developing societal norms.  I have been raised in a spiritual environment in which meditation has been part of my everyday practice. Despite this, even I have found myself a culprit of being consumed by social media, not realising how much time I have lost, simply scrolling through Instagram, Snapchat or Facebook, whilst comparing my own life to how others portray theirs.  This led my desire to research the effect social networking sites are having on society, exploring how a lack of mindfulness may be impacting the way individuals use social media and the consequential negative psychological impact.  

Initially, I attempted to conduct a systematic review on social media use and mindfulness alone.  However, after researching the topics, I realised there was not enough prior evidence to discuss and review.  After consulting my supervisor, it was decided the best way to deal with this would be to broaden the search.  I went about this by conducting a larger search on social media use and its impact on psychological well-being.  After identifying frequent themes, I focused my search on specific areas that had been well researched.  

Although I have found the process of researching the literature challenging, reading about the impact of social media use on well-being has been invigorating and insightful.  I have been able to apply what I have learnt to real life scenarios as I live through them, which has been the most interesting part of studying Psychology.  Additionally, I found developing ideas for future research in this field exciting, especially since the topic is not currently researched within the Psychology Faculty at the University of Southampton.   

Abstract

The relationship between social media and psychological well-being is complex.  For the purpose of this review, psychological well-being has been analysed using depression, self-esteem and mindfulness.  Despite social media use growing exponentially, research gravitates towards the negative impacts of social media use on depression.  With regard to self-esteem, the review identifies that individual experiences with online friends, the particular social networking site (SNS) used, cultural differences and personal dispositions all effect the impact of SNSs.  This impact is unique and subjective to each individual.  In general, the more positive an engagement is, such as receiving greater number of likes, the higher the individual’s self-esteem.  Additionally, it was established that mindfulness as a trait allows for positive social media use, but it should be practiced with caution when used as a tool to deal with compulsive social media use.  Finally, it is acknowledged that there is little research into psychological well-being and other SNSs, such as Instagram.  This may be because Facebook is the most popular SNS. In future research, it is recommended to measure the effects of Instagram use on psychological well-being and whether this relationship is effected by mindfulness, self-esteem and spirituality.  

Introduction

The Internet plays a predominant role in many lives, with approximately 3.7 billion individuals around the world with daily access (Internet Live Stats, 2017).  Today, this is approximately 50% of the world’s population, compared to just 1% in 1995.  The Internet has revolutionised the way people can instantly connect and share moments with others through social networking sites (SNSs), or now more commonly referred to as social media, such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter. Since Mark Zukerburg founded Facebook in 2004, it is estimated that 2.07 billion individuals use the social network every month, a figure that is constantly expanding (Facebook Newsroom, 2017). Due to this development, psychologists have taken great interest in researching SNSs such as Facebook. Although Facebook remains the most popular SNS, compared to 2015, there has been growth in use of other social networks, particularly Whatsapp (45% vs. 28%) and Instagram (31% vs. 22%) (Ofcom, 2017). 

There have been multiple effects of Internet use on human behaviour; these have been both positive and negative.  Early research into the consequences of Internet use, found significant declines in social involvement offline combined with an increase in depression rates (Kraut et al., 1998).  Despite this, individuals have continued to access the online tool exponentially, and have become psychologically and personally dependent on it (McMillan & Morrison, 2006).  A multitude of research has evolved to concentrate on specific areas of Internet use, such as social media.  The number of Facebook friends an individual attains, has been associated with stronger perceptions of social support, thus reducing stress and in turn eliciting greater well-being (Nabi, Prestin & So, 2013).  In contrast, more recently, it has been suggested that absence of likes and comments may predict lower well-being, as such elements provide visual and quantifiable measures of user’s social value (Blease, 2015).  With the number of social media users rapidly increasing, effects on psychological well-being is an issue that needs to be addressed and analysed in more depth.  

Social Media

Social media or SNSs have become a routine aspect of many lives.  Thus, it is imperative for psychologists to gauge the social and psychological outcomes for individuals engaging in this phenomenon.  Ellison (2007) defines social network sites as web-based services that allow individuals to construct a profile, list other users they share a connection with, and compare their list of connections with others within the system.  Social media on the other hand, is defined as a group of Internet-based applications that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content (Kaplan & Haenlein 2010).  Literature found concentrates on Facebook use, therefore it will be the focal point of analysis in this review, with exception to the impact of social media on mindfulness.  

The aim of this literature review is to discuss and summarise research based on social media use in relation to psychological well-being. Studies relevant to Facebook and depression, Facebook and self-esteem and social media and mindfulness will be analysed, before outlining potential future research.  

Psychological Well-being

Diener (1984) has defined well-being as the balance between positive and negative emotions and cognitions.  This implies that the way we think and feel in general and about ourselves, can contribute to our psychological well-being.  However, it is important to recognise that well-being is subjective to the individual.  The level of well-being an individual may feel, depends on what they believe it to be in the context of their environment and situation.  

The way psychological well-being is measured, can be a tool in defining the concept itself.  Numerous measures have been developed, such as life satisfaction scales (Oh et al., 2014), lifespan self-esteem scales (Harris, Donnellan & Trzesniewski, 2017) and level of stress scales (Park, Song & Lee, 2014).  However, in the context of this review, psychological well-being will be thought upon in terms of depression, self-esteem and mindfulness, which will be discussed in subsequent sections.  

Facebook and Depression

The DSM-5 (2013) criteria defines major depressive disorder as a depressed mood, or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, every day for more than two weeks, as well as impaired social, occupational or other important areas of functioning.  To fulfil diagnostic criteria, five or more symptoms must be present and episodes cannot be attributable to physiological substance effects, or another medical condition.   

It is evident that the time spent on Facebook can negatively impact an individual’s well-being.  Research into 160 Serbian students has shown a positive correlation between depression and time spent on social media (Pantic et al., 2012).  Although the study found a statistically significant positive correlation, the strength of this correlation is weak.  As the sample is relatively small and the cohort of participants were all from the same school and area, it is possible that low heterogeneity explains this weak correlation.  Furthermore, students were only asked how much time they had spent on the SNSs.  From this, causality cannot be established as there are many other confounding variables that may cause depression, (not merely spending time on SNSs) such as, the experiences students have whilst using them.  If students engaged with their close friends through tagging in comical videos, this may have a positive effect.  However, seeing other’s holiday photos for instance within their wider network, may evoke social comparisons, leading to more negative effects which may trigger depressive symptoms.  

It is arguable that to understand how social media causes depression, it first needs to be understood why social media is used.  For instance, Sagioglou and Greitemeyer (2014) state individuals commit a forecasting error, where there is an expectation to feel better after using Facebook.  Yet in reality, individuals feel worse due to the increased usage, which causes depressed mood.  Such forecasting errors may occur due to beliefs, that it is a societal norm to actively post and keep up to date with others’ activities throughout the day. Further research by Baker, Krieger and LeRoy (2016) found 368 undergraduates from a large ethnically diverse U.S university, were driven to use social media due to fear of missing out.  They state this culturally universal phenomenon drives greater social media use, to stay continually connected with others and avoid negative mood states.  Issues such as these, indicate the importance to factor in reasons behind usage, when attempting to assess whether or not it causes depression.  

In a small American undergraduate sample, Steers, Wickham and Acitelli (2014) found participants who spent more time on Facebook, exhibited more depressive symptoms.  Moreover, they identified that this result was uniquely mediated by social comparisons. Individuals felt depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook, because they felt worse after comparing themselves to others.  Such findings elicit how Facebook use can negatively impact well-being, but more importantly seek to explain how such negative impacts arise, rather than merely stating that a correlational relationship exists.  Despite the sample being relatively small, it was ethnically diverse and also covered an extensive range of ages (19-57).  Thus, the sample is credible and representative of wider populations, allowing for valid generalisations.  A further strength of the study is that diary methodology was used, providing precise representations of everyday behaviour.  This not only reduces retrospective bias, but also provides in depth data for analysis.  In addition, the method is sensitive to the nature of depression, preventing any unethical issues arising in the data collection process.  However, as it is still a self-report measure, these findings should be considered with caution, as individuals may lie.  It is further worth noting, that the association found in the study was only in male participants, suggesting potential gender differences in the onset of depression, as a result of increased Facebook use.  

Such differences are evident in a large nationally representative study, of 5,961 adolescents conducted in Hungary.  Banyai et al. (2017) found that in the at-risk group, only female adolescents had significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms, the more time they spent on social media.  However, these conflicting findings could be due to differences in sample size, as Steers, Wickham and Acitelli (2014) had a smaller sample size of 180 participants, with fewer men than women, thus reducing the study’s power. Yet more importantly, the two studies were conducted in two different cultures and this should be considered when looking at contrasting results, as data may be influenced by the differing cultural norms of America and Hungary.  Although both countries are classified as individualistic, differences have been found in how families function (Keitner et al., 1991).  When a family member is depressed in Hungary, reported difficulties involve setting family rules and boundaries, whereas those in North America experience impaired communication and difficulties in solving problems.  These findings explain why there may be differences between male and female depression as a result of social media use, as family norms and functioning may differ in the two countries due to differences in culture and traditions.  Although this study is slightly outdated, is it plausible to argue that cultural and family values would have remained relatively consistent over the time period.

A balanced view of Fox and Moreland (2015), affirms that constant online social comparison to other network members triggered dissatisfaction, anxiety and negative emotions, all of which may contribute to increased depressive symptoms, irrespective of gender.  Within this study, those with higher levels of depression also reported low self-esteem the more they used social media, which appropriately renders the following topic of analysis.  

Facebook and Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is defined as how a person feels about themselves. State self-esteem refers to how someone feels at a particular moment in time, whereas trait self-esteem refers to how they generally feel about themselves.  Individuals with low self-esteem tend to be more socially anxious than people with high self-esteem (Leary & MacDonald, 2003).  In relation to Facebook, Chen and Lee (2013) voiced that greater usage negatively impacts self-esteem and associates with psychological distress.  More specifically, low-self-esteem individuals are more likely to compare themselves to others on Facebook for self-evaluation (Cramer, Song & Drent, 2016).  As established earlier, critical comparisons to others can lead to greater anxiety, thus reduced psychological well-being.

Some research has depicted that the form self-esteem takes due to social media use, is largely dependent on the type of experience and interaction individuals have with other members.  A large group of 881 Dutch adolescents, showed that self-esteem was affected solely by the tone of feedback they received on their profiles. Positive feedback enhanced their self-esteem and well-being (78% of the sample) whereas negative feedback decreased it (7% of the sample) (Valkenburg, Peter & Schouten, 2006).  This indicates how self-esteem as a result of social media use, can be extremely subjective and varies from one individual to another.  In this study, the sample affected by negative feedback is relatively small, however, it cannot be overlooked that the study was conducted over a decade ago. In that time, with technological advances, thus a surplus to online accessibility via smartphones; it can be argued that self-esteem may be impacted more aversively from when the study was first carried out.  A practical example of this is cyberbullying.  Hinduja and Patchin (2010) outline the concept as wilful harm, inflicted through the use of electronic devices.  They found a significant association between victims and offenders of cyberbullying and low self-esteem.  McAfee (2014) found 87% of screened young adolescents experienced cyberbullying, compared to 27% the year before.  This reiterates how with time; individuals’ experiences online are changing and may impact self-esteem more negatively than before.  

Other varying experience is afforded by Facebook’s design of likes and comments, which can trigger minor and major negative emotional experiences (Fox & Moreland, 2015).  This has been studied in greater depth by Burrow & Rainone (2017), who found a positive and significant association between the number of likes individuals receive on their Facebook profile pictures, and an individual’s self-esteem.  Despite having a moderate sample of 246 participants, due to the correlational design used in this study, the direction of the relationship cannot be assumed.  Hence a true causal relationship as to why self-esteem is impacted, cannot be established.  In defence, they also found that links between likes and self-esteem diminished, for those who felt they had a higher purpose in life.  This implies that circumstantial and dispositional factors, may have greater hold over self-esteem and perhaps psychological well-being overall.  This has been illustrated by Andreassen, Pallesen and Griffiths (2017) who considered various personality and situational traits such as narcissism, self-esteem, education, student status and income.  After studying 23,532 Norwegian participants, aged 16 to 88, they propose people use social media to obtain higher self-esteem, for example by harvesting likes and/or to escape feelings of low self-esteem, providing further insight and explanation for differences in Facebook experience.  

Alternative research takes a contrastive approach, that the particular social media site used influences self-esteem outcomes.  American undergraduates editing Facebook profiles reported higher levels of self-esteem, unlike those editing their MySpace pages (Gentile, Twenge, Freeman & Campbell, 2012).  This depicts how different SNSs can impact individuals in a multitude of ways.  This could be due to key differences between the sites.  MySpace offers an opportunity to create and customise personal brands, allowing for self-expression and promotion.  In contrast, Facebook has a standard format, with more communal goals such as keeping in touch with friends and family.  Due to this, MySpace may trigger more narcissistic characteristics during use, compared to Facebook where it is more likely for social comparisons to be made, against people known in an individual’s community.  This further outlines the relevance of analysing SNSs’ influence separately, on self-esteem and overall psychological well-being. Despite this it is notable that the study relative to social media progress is outdated, and MySpace is not as frequently used now compared to six years ago.  

Research has additionally shown that an individual’s age also influences how Facebook impacts their level of self-esteem.  A two-year longitudinal study conducted in the Netherlands, among 852 adolescents aged 10 to 15, found that initial self-esteem did influence whether Facebook was used in later years, but initial Facebook use did not influence self-esteem of individuals in later years i.e. when they were older. Online feedback from close friends, seemed to explain the concurrent relationship between social media use and self-esteem, but not the longitudinal relationship (Valkenburg, Koutamanis & Vossen, 2017).  From such findings, it can be assumed that as individuals get older, there is a shift in how Facebook use impacts their self-esteem.  A potential reason for this difference, could be that by receiving rewarding positive feedback, individuals experience short-term boosts in self-esteem, resulting in them wanting to continue usage.  This has been supported by a neuro-behavioural perspective, whereby with more habitual SNS use, the brain constantly overemphasises the salience of the thrill received (Robinson & Berridge, 2003).  In comparison to other studies, a strength lies in this experiment conducted by Valkenburg, Koutamanis & Vossen (2017) as they not only test reverse correlations to establish causality, but unlike most other research, they administered repeated tests over time, increasing the study’s overall power and reliability.  A limitation is that the findings cannot be generalised to other countries, despite the large sample used.  However, as the study has been recently published, the concept can be transferred and researched in other countries, to test if the same trends exist.  

As a whole, it can be concluded that the relationship between Facebook use and self-esteem is broadly dynamic and subjective to each individual user. A single factor cannot explain such a complex field of research such as, age, gender, culture and individual dispositions.  Therefore, the following topic analyses another perspective into social media use and psychological well-being.  

Mindfulness and Psychological Well-being

Mindfulness is understood as a state of non-judgmental and nonreactive awareness in which an individual develops full perception of the present moment, a focused attention, and an attitude of experiencing the here and now (Schonert-Reichl & Roeser, 2016; Brown & Ryan, 2013).  Although mindfulness is originally a concept based on Buddhism (Neves-Pereira, de Carvalho & de Campos Aspesi, 2017), it has been identified as one of the most strongly established factors contributing to well-being (Baer et al., 2008; Brown & Ryan, 2003).  Weinstein, Brown and Ryan (2009) support this as they found college students who are more mindful, indicate more benign stress appraisals and use more approach and less avoidant coping strategies, to deal with anxiety-driven situations.  

Social Media and Mindfulness

There is relatively limited research on mindfulness and Facebook use.  Nonetheless, with consistent findings of its overall benefits to psychological well-being, it is imperative to assess the research that has been conducted on SNSs overall.  Studies have found links between self-esteem and mindfulness, in relation to online social media use.  Survey data from 219 18 to 23 year olds, collected by Yang, Holden and Carter (2017) has depicted significant associations in those who are more mindful, to show higher identity clarity, self-esteem and more authentic self-portrayal on their social media outlets.  Identity clarity is when an individual holds a clear and coherent sense of who they are and authentic self-portrayal refers to how genuinely individuals represent themselves on social media.  All three factors are indicators of well-being.  Thus, according to the research, by being more mindful, users exhibit more positive and authentic behaviour online.  Having been very recently conducted, the findings hold high concurrent validity and are therefore extremely applicable and relevant to current society.  That being said, it cannot be ignored that other factors may have implicated the findings. 38% of the sample were of Black ethnicity and overall, they reported higher self-esteem than White students. Previous research has shown Black adolescents’ parents place more emphasis on cultural heritage, history and pride than White adolescents’ parents (Hughes, Witherspoon, Rivas-Drake, & West-Bey, 2009).  As a result of this, students are likely to have higher identity clarity and may be more inclined to being mindful and authentic due to their upbringing, resulting in greater positive effects from using social media.  This highlights the importance of considering the influence of cultural heritage and values, when evaluating mindfulness and social media use, as well as psychological well-being overall.  

In continuation, Charoensukmongkol (2016) found across three differing industry samples in Bangkok, using social media during work increased burn out (emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation) in individuals with low level mindfulness, but reduced burnout for those with high levels of mindfulness.  Although statistically significant associations were found, the relationships were relatively weak.  This may have been due to differing characteristics amongst participants, such as personality type, that may have influenced the relationship between mindfulness and social media use.  Despite this limitation, an advantage of this particular study is that adult users were analysed, compared to the usual undergraduate and adolescent samples.  The findings are thus representative of a wider age category within the population. The study further lays the groundwork for more research to be conducted in older adult social media users.  

Recent research has shown how mindfulness can be used as a tool to help individuals, who may have an addiction or compulsion to use social media. Turel and Osatuyi (2017) found mindfulness increases the ability of social pressure self-efficacy to reduce compulsive use of SNSs.  Social pressure self-efficacy has been defined as the ability to refuse or resist SNS use.  The study demonstrated that in the case of SNSs, mindfulness can be a double-edged sword that can increase compulsive use through one mechanism, but can reduce it via another.  From this, it can be implied that being overly mindful, may actually have a negative impact on social media use, stressing that mindfulness should be approached with balance.  Overall, as a trait, mindfulness seems to reduce negative impacts of social media use, enhancing psychological well-being, however as a tool to reduce compulsive use, mindfulness may need to be practiced in moderation to avoid negative consequences.  

Conclusion

From the literature reviewed, the evidence generally sways towards the negative impacts of using SNSs, such as higher levels of depressive symptoms and reduced self-esteem as a result of social comparisons (Pantic et al., 2012; Cramer, Song & Drent, 2016).  However, much research also indicates the subjective influence that individual experiences and dispositional factors have, in determining the effect of social media use (Fox & Moreland, 2015; Andreassen, Pallesen & Griffiths, 2017).  

It is evident there are clear limitations to the studies that have been discussed in this review.  Firstly, most research conducted in this area are based on correlational or cross-sectional experimental designs (Burrow & Rainone, 2017; Yang, Holden & Carter, 2017).  As a result, causal reasoning cannot be established.  It may well be the case that having low self-esteem, not being mindful and suffering from depressive symptoms, cause people to use social media more, rather than using social media causing such effects.  Whilst considering all arguments, it is crucial to remain cautious of this, as it is probable there are numerous contributory factors. In an attempt to overcome this issue, it is worth considering the use of longitudinal studies.  

Secondly, almost all studies were based on self-report measures (Baker, Krieger & LeRoy, 2016).  Although such methods are a popular and convenient way to obtain a large amount of data, individuals may lie or not truly immerse themselves in the study, due to social desirability biases.  This may have influenced associations found, as there is a large risk for inaccuracies within uncontrolled conditions.  The results may also be skewed dependent on the mood and affect of the individual at that point in time.  Instead, focus groups or semi-structured interviews could be used.  This would be appropriate considering social media is a community based network, allowing interactions to be observed and examined in more depth.  Advantages would involve improved control of environments and obtaining more detailed information.  

A further drawback within literature is age bias. Most studies have been conducted on undergraduates and adolescents (Pantic et al., 2012; Banyai et al., 2017). However, social media, especially Facebook is used by society as a whole, not just this age category.  Young adults are usually in a process of establishing their identities, which may particularly impact their use of social media to gain self-esteem, making it harder to generalise findings (Andreassen, Pallesen & Griffiths, 2017).  Thus, there is a pertinent need to conduct more research in older generation users, as stage of life may impact the driving purpose for using social media.  Research could analyse motivational factors when individuals are younger, such as keeping up to date with trends, compared to older generations who may use social media primarily to stay connected with friends and family.  

Although the past 15 years has seen a number of American researchers pioneer investigations into the relationship between social media and well-being, the present review contrastingly factors in more recent studies from across Europe as well as Asia (Banyai et al., 2017; Charoensukmongkol, 2016). This not only provides a globally representative analysis compared to previous years, but also highlights a rise in interest of research in the field, within European and Eastern nations.  

Overall, there has been limited research conducted into other forms of social media, such as Instagram and Snapchat.  With a 9% increase in Instagram use in the last two years (Ofcom, 2017), there is a need to investigate the effects it has on psychological well-being.  Features of Instagram include options to edit images through cropping and filtering.  Analysis of individuals posting a real or ‘filtered’ portrayal of themselves could lead to interesting findings with regards to self-esteem, mindfulness and spiritual and/or religious values.  The aim of my research project is to investigate the relationship between the above factors.  I am aware of the subjectivity that may impact research findings, as presented in the review, so aspire to remain impartial when conducting analyses and develop non-directional hypotheses.  

In summary, this review has demonstrated that whilst there is evidence supporting social media use having a demonstrably negative effect on psychological well-being, it is an association that can be refuted based on an individual’s personal experience and dispositions.  

Written by Vibhati Bhatia ©

December 2017

Categories: ArticlesTags: , , , , , ,

1 Comment

  1. I have been exploring for a little bit for any high quality articles or weblog
    posts in this sort of house . Exploring in Yahoo I at last stumbled upon this site.
    Studying this info So i am glad to exhibit that I’ve a very excellent uncanny feeling I found out exactly
    what I needed. I such a lot certainly will
    make certain to do not disregard this web site and give it a look
    on a relentless basis.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s