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People who juggle many different social networks may have trouble making connections, the researchers say.

Amanda MacMillan
December 23, 2016

You've heard that using social media can be bad for your mental health, and that multitasking can wreak havoc on your brain. So the findings from a new study may come as no surprise: Juggling several social platforms is linked to a higher risk of depression and anxiety than using just one or two.

In 2014, researchers asked 1,787 millenials (who famously use more social media than older generations) how often they checked 11 popular networks: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus, Tumblr, and Vine.

The participants, all between the ages of 19 and 32, were also assessed for depression and anxiety. It turns out, those who used seven or more platforms had more than triple the risk for anxiety and depressive symptoms, compared to those who between zero and two.

The results were adjusted for other factors that could contribute to mental health issues, including relationship status, household income, education, race, and gender. The researchers also controlled for total time spent on social media.

Brian A. Primack, MD, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health, stresses that the study was not able to show cause and effect. But the authors do have a few theories as to how using multiple social media sites use may exacerbate poor mental health.

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“We had this idea that maybe if your social media time is concentrated into just a couple different platforms, where you know the rules and the social norms very well, they become sort of a community to you and you’d get more of a positive influence,” he told Health.

“But if you’re switching between eight different platforms, then it’s more difficult to get that benefit,” he continues. “You might experience difficulty navigating those different worlds and making connections, and that might lead to negative mood or emotions.”

Trying to keep up with the various idiosyncrasies of multiple networks may also leave people vulnerable to embarrassing gaffes or misunderstandings, Dr. Primack adds, like sending a public message that should be private.

It’s also very possible that depressed or anxious people are drawn to multiple platforms. “Maybe they’re continuously searching for a setting that feels comfortable, where they feel more accepted,” Dr. Primack says.

In fact, Dr. Primack believes that some people become trapped in a vicious cycle. “It could be that somebody starts to get unhappy with their life, so they start to branch out and use other platforms and meet other people,” he says. “But then the multitasking becomes difficult, and it becomes harder to form relationships and understand the rules, and that leads to more depression.”

Regardless, he adds, the association is strong enough that doctors should consider asking patients with depression or anxiety about their social media use. It may help these people to know that their online habits could be related to their symptoms—and that taking a break may help.

The results were published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. In a press release, co-author César G. Escobar-Viera, MD, a psychiatrist and postdoctoral research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, said that better understanding how, exactly, people use social media will be an important next step in this research.

"Ultimately, we want this research to help in designing and implementing educational public health interventions that are as personalized as possible,” he said.