Brian Primack, University of Pittsburgh – Social Media and Depression

PRIMACK_BRIAN_MD_IM_20140109-023_DxODoes being addicted to social media make you more depressed?

Brian Primack, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Health and Society in the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences. Director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health. Professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, delves into this question.

Dr. Brian Primack combines his expertise in education, technology, human development and medicine in his research on the effect of mass media messages on health. Specifically, he focuses on the use of media literacy education to prevent adolescent smoking, underage drinking and other harmful adolescent behaviors.

Dr. Primack has authored studies on topics such as racial disparities in tobacco advertising, the portrayal of substance use in popular music and  the relationship between “media literacy” and adolescent smoking. He has been quoted in the New York Times, ABC News, CBS News and Forbes Magazine.

Dr. Primack received his medical degree from Emory Medical School and his master’s in education degree from Harvard University.  He graduated from Yale University in 1991 with degrees in English literature and mathematics.

He is the recent recipient of the Society of Behavioral Medicine Early Career Investigator Award, the Society of Adolescent Medicine New Investigator Award, the Robert Wood Johnson Physician Faculty Scholar Award and the University of Pittsburgh Provost’s Innovation in Education Award.

Social Media and Depression


There has been a lot of controversy about the relationship between social media use and depression. On the one hand, maybe using more social media can help people reach out to others in difficult times, alleviating depression. On the other hand, maybe spending more time pouring through others’ idealized photo collections and achievements can lead to negative self-comparisons. This question is important not only because depression is a leading cause of worldwide morbidity but also because social media is now so ubiquitous.

So, in 2014 we surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 1787 U.S. young adults ages 19 through 32 on their overall social media use and depression using items adapted from the Pew Internet questionnaire. We measured depression using the validated Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS) scale.

We were surprised with what we found. We had expected a U-shaped curve, with a higher risk of depression being correlated with no social media use at all or excessive use. But instead what we found was a straight line. More social media use was associated with more depression in a linear fashion.

Because this was a cross-sectional study, it does not disentangle cause and effect.  It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void. Alternatively, exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives. Another possibility is that engaging in activities of little meaning on social media may give a feeling of “time wasted” that negatively influences mood.

One important future direction will be to study more nuanced social media exposures. For example, there may be different risks for depression depending on whether the social media interactions people have tend to be more active vs. passive or whether they tend to be more confrontational vs. supportive.

The purpose of this is certainly not to advocate forgoing social media altogether. Social media, like many other technologies, represents a double-edged sword, with many potential positive uses. Instead, we hope to help people use this medium for improving life and not inadvertently detracting from it.




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