Social media obsessives 'can be weaned off their addiction to the benefit of their mental health', study finds
The research suggests that people who are addicted to social media sites and apps may benefit from therapy
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The issue of social media addiction is one that has been gaining public prominence both in the US and the UK over recent years. There have been centres where people can go for help with their technology addictions for years, and now many of these places include social media addiction in the list of treatments they offer. Dr Richard Graham, a leading consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist, founded the technology addiction service for young people at the Capio Nightingale Hospital in London in 2010. It was the first of its kind in the UK and sees patients as young as 12-years-old.
Now, new findings, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, suggest that receiving therapy for "problematic" social media use can be effective in improving the mental wellbeing of people with depression. For the purpose of the study, “problematic” use is defined as when a person’s preoccupation with social media results in a distraction from their primary tasks and the neglect of responsibilities in other aspects of their life.
It was estimated that more than 4.5 billion people used at least one form of social media in 2022 - and the research found that sites have changed how people keep in touch, form relationships and perceive each other. For example, social media has led to the formation of many parasocial relationships.
Previous research has 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. The new study found, however, that social media use interventions can help adults who find that their use of social media has an impact on their mental health.
‘Mental health issues are on the rise, as is the number of people who use social media’
Social media use interventions, including abstaining from or limiting use of social media, alongside therapy-based techniques such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), have been developed and evaluated as part of the study.
University College London (UCL) researchers analysed 23 studies which included participants from all over the world, between 2004 and 2022. They found that in more than a third of studies (39 per cent) social media use interventions improved mental wellbeing.
Study lead author Dr Ruth Plackett 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.”
The team said improvements were particularly notable in depression as 70 percent of studies saw a "significant" improvement in symptoms following the intervention. Therapy-based interventions were most effective, improving mental wellbeing in 83 percent of studies, compared to 20 percent of studies finding an improvement where social media use was limited and 25 percent where social media was given up entirely.
Schartau 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.”
More research is needed
People’s relationship with social media is complicated, however. Some studies find that these sites can have a positive impact on people, but others conclude that they have a negative influence. A study from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) found there is no evidence to suggest using Facebook is linked to widespread psychological harm and actually suggested that use of the site may actually benefit mental health.
The UCL team hope that their findings will help to develop guidance and recommendations for policymakers and doctors on how best to manage problematic social media use, but they acknowledged that further research is needed to investigate who may benefit most from social media use interventions.