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Social Media Depression

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    September 2020

    Does excessive time spent on social media lead to depression? Social media was designed to be, well, social, but it may actually have the opposite effect in some users. Experts have been debating this issue for years. There is strong evidence to suggest this may very well be the case. This is especially evident in young people, particularly members of Generation Z who were born between 1995 and 2010.1,2

    “Social media depression” is a relatively new term used to describe feelings of melancholy attributed to negative interactions or a lack of interaction on a social media platform.3 It is only used informally at this time and not currently recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

    Pediatricians have warned against the potential negative consequences of social media in young children and teens. In a report published in JAMA Pediatrics, findings showed that for every additional hour spent on screen time (either television or social media), there was a subsequent rise in depression symptoms in young people.4

    Excessive social media use produces both physical and emotional effects, which can be felt in those of any age, gender or socioeconomic background.

    Older generations are not exempt from this risk either. Experts agree there is a link between social media use and depression, but causality remains questionable. Does use of applications or websites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube actually cause depression or bring to light symptoms that previously exist? In any case, research suggests that those who heavily engage on various sites experience negative mental outcomes. One study revealed that people who use between seven and eleven platforms had over three times the risk of depression and anxiety as compared to those who used two or fewer.5

    Why is this happening?

    Research indicates some reasons are physiological in nature contributing to sleep deprivation or poor quality sleep, impaired concentration and stress.6

    Poor quality of sleep has been identified as a major risk factor for depression.Studies from Brigham and Women’s Hospital found a correlation between time spent in front of fluorescent light four hours prior to bedtime and poor sleep outcomes. The blue light emitted from cell phone screens interrupts the natural circadian rhythm cycle and inhibits the release of melatonin. This leads to difficulties falling asleep, less REM sleep and grogginess upon awakening even in those who had a full night’s sleep.6

    The multitasking behavior involved with smartphone usage also impacts users, as switching between various applications has been linked to reduced cognition abilities, lower attention span and decreased mood. More specifically, research has revealed checking Facebook multiple times per day as an excuse to procrastinate on immediate tasks may lead to unnecessary stress and anxiety.5

    Furthermore, smartphone use can become addictive, both physically and mentally. 

    Other factors are more emotionally linked and lead to feelings of isolation, envy, jealousy, anxiety and depression.

    One study revealed Facebook use was linked to a greater degree of day-to-day and overall life dissatisfaction. Other studies find Facebook may ultimately lead to real or perceived feelings of social isolation, which is a strong risk for psychological disorders and even suicide.7,8 The reason for these associations is still unclear.

    Are individuals increasingly turning to social media to try to fill a void when lonely? Or rather, is spending too much time on social media platforms making them feel isolated? Genuine, human face-to-face connections are strongly associated with a person’s well-being.9 However, could a virtual interactions replace real-life? This type of friendship may not serve as an adequate replacement for the therapeutic benefits reaped from real physical friendships.

    In addition to feeling left out, some users may experience feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. This can happen from scrolling through page after page of Instagram images or Facebook posts from friends, acquaintances, or even strangers — which often seem to showcase their seemingly “perfect” lives. Feelings of envy and jealous may surface in comparing oneself with others, which, ultimately, can provoke symptoms of anxiety and depression. This is especially true for adolescents who have been known to develop body dysmorphia from comparing their bodies to others, which can also lead to depression.8

    The effects on today’s youth

    There has been a sharp increase in mental health issues such as depression, anorexia, and cutting behavior thought to be somehow linked to the rise of the computer, internet and smartphones. Health professionals acknowledge that children and teens especially are more sensitive to media influences. Members of Generation Z are the first to have grown up in a world where texting, social media and other online communications have always existed.

    In 2017, a group of psychologists published their findings in Clinical Psychological Science. They hypothesized that this group, in particular, is more likely to experience mental health issues than their Millennial predecessors.1

    When teens across various socioeconomic backgrounds were surveyed nationally between 2010 and 2015, the number of teens who felt “useless and joyless”, a classic sign of depression, rose by 33%. Proportionately, teen suicides also increased by 31% during that time. It is felt that the combination of a lack of adult supervision and dearth of guidance in this new frontier of the digital age may be contributing to the problem. Symptoms develop long before a parental figure is even aware of the problem, thus delaying necessary intervention.1,10

    A study in the United Kingdom found that Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook seem to be the worst three offenders in producing negative mental health effects on children.8 Excessive use may potentially disrupt sleep patterns and provoke feelings of jealousy and sadness. More disturbingly though, it can be used as a form of cyberbullying. Research from a 2014 study published in JAMA Pediatrics reveals that cyberbullying may produce more suicidal ideations in children and teens than traditional bullying.11

    The reason for this could be multifactorial:

    • Malicious gossip can spread much faster and to a wider audience than as compared with traditional schoolyard bullying in the past.11,12 
    • Materials can be stored online which could enable further repeated denigration of the victim.
    • Social etiquette standards have deteriorated given the rise of the internet.
    • The internet offers anonymity.

    Suicide is a prominent cause of death in adolescents worldwide. In the U.S. alone, 20% of teens contemplate suicide and between 5% and 8% actually carry it out to completion.11

    The American College of Pediatrics shared their findings on this subject in a 2014 study.6,11

    • Over 50% of teens admit to have been bullied online.
    • More than 25% of them were bullied repeatedly through the internet or cell phones.
    • Only one in 10 adolescents admitted to notifying a parent about the bullying.

    Implications for underwriting and claims professionals

    How can we this apply this information to life and living benefits insurance? The insurance industry could see increased morbidity and mortality leading to claims in future years due to depression, suicide, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders and habit criticisms.

    Going forward, as this generation moves into adulthood and become the insurance consumers of tomorrow, will insurers see a rise in mental health risks? From Generation Z to Baby Boomers, how can insurance companies creatively leverage data sources specific to social media use as mental health clues, within legal boundaries? Could insurers also use wearable data to screen for warning signs? It is important for underwriters to be aware of both smartphone addiction as well as social media depression since insureds can be potentially affected by both.

    Contact the author:
    Betty Hovorka
    Betty Hovorka
    Risk Management Consultant
    Research, Analytics, and Underwriting

    This article was originally featured in the September 2020 Issue of OTR and is re-printed with permission of ON THE RISK, Journal of the Academy of Life Underwriting (

    Twenge, Jean. “Teenage depression and suicide are way up — and so is smartphone use.” The Washington Post, 19 Nov 2017. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    2 Patel, D. “8 ways Generation Z will differ from Millenials in the workplace. Accessed 29 August 2019.

    3 Spoon, Marianne. “What’s social media depression—and do I have it?” How Stuff Works: Health Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    4 Boers, Elroy, PhD, Mohammad H. Alfalzi, PhD, Nicola Newton, PhD, et al. “Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence.” JAMA Pediatrics, 15 Jul 2019. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    5 Zagorski, Nick. “Using Many Social Media Platforms Linked With Depression, Anxiety Risk.” Psychiatric News: American Psychiatric Association, 17 Jan 2017. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    6  Liu, Stephen. “Social Media and Depression.” Culture + Youth Studies, May 2015. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    7 Walton, Alice. “6 Ways Social Media Affects Our Mental Health.” Forbes Media, LLC. Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    8 Hocking, Lucy. “Does Social Media Depression in Young People Really Exist?” The Rand Blog, Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    9 Hobson, Katherine. “Feeling Lonely? Too Much Time On Social Media May Be Why.” NPR, 6 Mar 2017, Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    10 Twenge, Jean M, Thomas E. Joiner, Megan L. Rogers, et al. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” SAGE Journals, 14 Nov. 2017, Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    11 McNamee, David. “Cyberbullying causes suicidal thoughts in kids more than traditional bullying.’” Medical News Today, 11 Mar. 2014, Accessed 26 Jul 2019.

    12 Moreno, Maria MD, MSEd, MPH. “Cyberbullying.” JAMA Pediatrics Page. May 2014, Accessed 26 Jul 2019.