Scientists say therapy for 'problematic' social media use can work to overcome depression

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A person downloading music on his phone. Copyright AP Photo/Julio Cortez
By Lauren Chadwick
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People with problematic social media use can benefit from therapy along with abstaining from social media, the researchers found.


Behavioural therapy for problematic social media use could help improve the mental well-being of people with depression, new research shows.

Problematic social media use is when social media interferes with a person’s daily activities.

The new study, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research on Friday, analysed 23 studies from between 2004 and 2022.

The University College London (UCL) researchers found that in 70 per cent of the studies there was a significant improvement in depression following social media use intervention. In more than a third of studies, these interventions improved mental well-being.

"We found in 7 out of 10 studies that tested a social media intervention on their participants … that those who completed the intervention had lower depression scores on surveys compared to those who didn't do the intervention," lead author Dr Ruth Plackett from University College London’s Institute of Epidemiology & Health told Euronews Next.

These kinds of therapy can help someone with problematic use by encouraging them to be more mindful about their use and reflect on how it makes them feel...
Dr Ruth Plackett
Study lead author, University College London

She specified that this was general depression not specifically linked to social media use.

Interventions that were therapy-based improved mental well-being in 83 per cent of the studies compared to just limiting social media use or giving it up.

"These kinds of therapy can help someone with problematic use by encouraging them to be more mindful about their use and reflect on how it makes them feel and what other activities might make them feel better," said Plackett.

Study author and general practitioner Dr Patricia Schartau added in a statement that "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".

One limitation of the study, however, was selection bias which makes it difficult to generalise the findings.

Social media can have both positive and negative impacts

Studies have shown that social media can also have both a positive and negative impact on mental health.

A study from researchers at Harvard University published in 2019 found that the way in which people use social media can change how it impacts someone’s well-being.

They said that routine use was associated with positive health outcomes while emotional connection to social media - such as checking platforms due to a fear of missing out - was associated with negative outcomes.

Some studies have found links between social media use and increased symptoms of depression and anxiety, but there had been concerns about bias from participants’ self-reporting of their social media use.

A recent large global study from a team of scientists at Oxford University found no evidence linking Facebook in particular to widespread psychological harm.

Social media platforms are in wide use across Europe.

An estimated 57 per cent of people aged 16 to 74 in the European Union use social media, while 87 per cent of young people aged 16 to 24 use it in the bloc.

The findings of this most recent study "mean that the relationship between social media use and mental health is complex. Some studies found that giving up social media can have some negative effects such as increasing loneliness. Others found it helped to reduce feelings of depression," according to Plackett.


"More research is needed to fully understand under what circumstances and for whom social media can be helpful or harmful," she told Euronews Next.

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