Abstract

The relationship between mental health and social media has received significant research and policy attention. However, there is little population-representative data about who social media users are which limits understanding of confounding factors between mental health and social media. Here we profile users of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children population cohort (N = 4083). We provide estimates of demographics and mental health and well-being outcomes by platform. We find that users of different platforms and frequencies are not homogeneous. User groups differ primarily by sex and YouTube users are the most likely to have poorer mental health outcomes. Instagram and Snapchat users tend to have higher well-being than the other social media sites considered. Relationships between use-frequency and well-being differ depending on the specific well-being construct measured. The reproducibility of future research may be improved by stratifying by sex and being specific about the well-being constructs used.

Introduction

The trails of data left online by our digital footprints are increasingly being used to measure and understand our health and well-being. Data sourced from social media platforms has been of particular interest given their potential to be used as a form of ‘natural’ observational data about anything from our voting intentions to symptoms of disease. There is not a single, widely agreed definition of the term ‘social media’1, but for the purposes of this study we understand it to be a broad category of internet-based platforms that allow for the exchange of user-generated content by ‘users’ of that platform2. Both the huge volumes of data available on such platforms, and their increasing uptake across the population3 have led to two main fields of interest in the intersections of social media and mental health. These are the prediction of mental health and well-being from our online data4 and, somewhat reciprocally, the influence of social media on our mental health, particularly in the case of children and young people5,6. These fields both ask fundamental questions about the mental health and well-being of social media users, to either understand the ways our mental health influences our social media behaviour, or how our social media behaviours influence our mental health.

 

Across both contexts a wide range of psychological outcomes have been studied, including predicting suicide at a population-level7 and individually8, mapping the influences of social media platforms on disordered eating9 and self-harm10, understanding the impacts of cyberbullying through social media platforms11,12, and even ethnographic research into online support networks13. As highlighted in a recent review which considered research on the relationship between social media use and well-being in adolescents14, there has tended to be an inherent assumption that social media is the cause of harm when examining the effect of social media on our health. However, recent investigations such as those by Orben and Przybylski15,16 and Appel and colleagues17 illustrate that the role of social media in causing harm may be over-estimated. It seems likely that there is some reciprocal relationship between mental health and social media, that requires longitudinal research studies to begin to understand the complexity, coupled with large representative samples to explore the heterogeneity18,19. Further, there is increasing attention on the role of within-person effects that see impact change between contexts20,21, as well as individual differences22. Meanwhile, attention has also been drawn to the comparative lack of investigation into the potential benefits of social media, such as access to peer support and the ability to readily connect with friends and family, or into the psychological well-being of social media users as opposed to focusing on pathology. Similarly, most psychological prediction tasks using social media focus on predicting illness rather than wellness

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