Depression symptoms are lessened by social media interventions

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According to a recent study by UCL researchers, receiving therapy for problematic social media use can be effective in improving the mental well-being of people with depression.

The research, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, found that social media use interventions could help adults for whom social media use has become problematic or interferes with their mental health.

Problematic use occurs when a person's preoccupation with social media diverts them from important duties and causes them to overlook obligations in other areas of their life.

According to prior research, social media use can become problematic when it begins to negatively impact a person's everyday life and results in mental health problems like sadness, anxiety, tension, and loneliness.

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To address these issues, and improve users’ mental health, social media use interventions have been developed and evaluated by researchers. Such techniques include abstaining from or limiting the use of social media, alongside therapy-based techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

The researchers analysed 23 studies which featured participants from across the globe, between 2004 and 2022. They found that in more than a third of studies (39 per cent), social media use interventions improved mental well-being.

Improvements were particularly notable in depression (low mood), as 70 per cent of studies saw a significant improvement in depression following the intervention.

Therapy-based interventions were most effective – improving mental wellbeing in 83 per cent of studies, compared to 20 per cent of studies finding an improvement where social media use was limited and 25 per cent where social media was given up entirely.

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Lead author, Ruth Plackett (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health), 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.”

Study author and GP Dr Patricia Schartau (UCL Institute of Epidemiology & Health), 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.”

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In 2022 it was estimated that 4.59 billion people globally used at least one form of social media and the sites have dramatically changed how people communicate, form relationships and perceive each other.

While some studies report that social media can be beneficial to users and provide them with increased social support, other evidence links social media with depression, anxiety and other psychological problems – particularly in young people.

The researchers hope that their findings will help to develop guidance and recommendations for policymakers and clinicians on how best to manage problematic social media use.

However, further research is needed in order to investigate who may benefit most from social media use interventions.