Not all social media sites are equally likely to provoke anxiety | Science News for Students

Not all social media sites are equally likely to provoke anxiety

Some apps are more stress-inducing than others, teen finds
Jun 5, 2018 — 12:25 pm EST
Female teenager sitting with her head on her knees, holding a cellphone

Does social media trigger anxiety? A teen’s data show that people do not respond the same way to all social media sites. 


PITTSBURGH, Pa. — From exams to the horrors of school shootings, high school students have plenty to be anxious about. By comparison, social media — Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, for instance — might seem like escapes. But Alisha Goyal, 18, wondered if social media sites might end up being more stressful than soothing. The senior at Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz., surveyed teens to discover if social media tends to hurt or help. Her findings now suggest that people who hang out at some social media sites might be at risk of developing anxiety.

Social media is a fact of life for teens. “Nowadays you can’t tell a teenager not to use [it],” Alisha says. “Almost 94 percent are using social media daily.” The teen wanted to assess the impacts of these sites on herself and her friends. She particularly wanted to study anxiety, she says, because it’s such a common mental illness and often develops during adolescence.  

Anxiety disorders — disorders that are associated with anxiety and fear, even when there’s nothing to be afraid of — are indeed very common. Slightly more than three in every 10 U.S. teens have anxiety disorders. We’re not talking about the butterflies you get before a big speech. People with anxiety disorders may develop tense muscles or trouble sleeping. They might suffer from feelings of panic. If these feelings don’t go away, they can stop people from going to school or participating in events they enjoy.

Alisha wanted to look for potential links between use of social media by teens and risk of anxiety disorders. She had been working with Yonas Geda. He is a psychiatrist — a doctor who treats mental illnesses — at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz. Together, they adapted a test for anxiety in social situations. It had been developed for use by for adults. They made it into a survey about social media and anxiety that would be suitable for teens.

Social media sleuthing

The survey asked teens how much time they spent on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. It also asked why the teens went to these sites and how they used these types of social media. For instance, they might prefer to be active (posting), interactive (liking and commenting) or just remain passive (scrolling through).

The questions also asked the volunteers about their levels of anxiety. Would they feel comfortable giving a public speech, for instance? The questions could not diagnose anxiety. Instead, they helped determine if someone was likely to develop an anxiety disorder at some later date.

To get the word out, “I emailed all the teachers in my school and asked them to give out the survey,” Alisha says. She attends a big school and ended up with 1,000 responses.

Facebook may make big headlines, but it’s not all that popular with teens, her data show. Use of Facebook also was not linked with someone’s score on the anxiety test. Twitter and Snapchat both seemed fairly relaxing. Teens who spent a lot of time on those sites scored lower on the anxiety test. That suggests they might be less likely to develop an anxiety disorder later.

Instagram showed the opposite trend. People who used this site scored more highly on the anxiety test. They could be more likely to suffer from anxiety later, Alisha says.

The teen shared her results at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), three weeks ago. The annual competition brought together almost 1,800 students from 81 countries. They presented their science fair projects to the public and competed for some $5 million in prizes. (ISEF was created by Society for Science & the Public. This year it is sponsored by Intel. The Society also publishes Science News for Students and this blog.)

Interpreting her findings

What Alisha turned up was a correlation — a link between two things. Time spent on Instagram was correlated with higher scores on questions asking about anxiety. But that doesn’t mean that Instagram causes anxiety, Alisha notes. Why? Certain platforms might attract more people who tend to be anxious, rather than prompting their visitors to become anxious. All her study can show is an association.

Why might use of different social media sites lead to different anxiety scores? Alisha thinks that how people interact with social media matters. With Snapchat, for example, “you’re having person-to-person conversations,” she says. “You’re not afraid to put on an ugly filter.” So Snapchat might make it easier to be yourself. On Twitter, people create their own tweets, sharing their thoughts with all they follow. That might help relieve stress, the teen thinks.

But Instagram is different. Each posted picture goes out to the entire universe of Instagram followers. People on the platform interact a lot, and each “like” or comment is open for all to see. “You see people project their best self,” Alisha says. The pressure to produce the perfect picture — gaining the most likes and best comments — can be intense, she adds.

Alisha is working on getting her anxiety test published in a scientific journal. She hopes that someday her results might help doctors detect emerging anxiety in teens. For now, she says, “I stopped posting on Instagram completely.” She probably didn’t need the extra stress.

Power Words

(more about Power Words)

adolescence     A transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

anxiety     A nervous reaction to events causing excessive uneasiness and apprehension. People with anxiety may even develop panic attacks.

correlation     A mutual relationship or connection between two variables. When there is a positive correlation, an increase in one variable is associated with an increase in the other. (For instance, scientists might correlate an increase in time spent watching TV with an increase in rates of obesity.) Where there is an inverse correlation, an increase in one value is associated with a drop in the other. (Scientists might correlate an increase in TV watching with a decrease in time spent exercising each week.) A correlation between two variables does not necessarily mean one is causing the other.

diagnose     To analyze clues or symptoms in the search for their cause. The conclusion usually results in a diagnosis — identification of the causal problem or disease.

disorder     (in medicine) A condition where the body does not work appropriately, leading to what might be viewed as an illness. This term can sometimes be used interchangeably with disease.

high school     A designation for grades nine through 12 in the U.S. system of compulsory public education. High-school graduates may apply to colleges for further, advanced education.

Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF)    Initially launched in 1950, this competition is one of three created (and still run) by the Society for Science & the Public. Each year now, approximately 1,800 high school students from more than 80 countries, regions, and territories are awarded the opportunity to showcase their independent research at Intel ISEF and compete for an average of almost $5 million in prizes. 

psychiatrist     A medical doctor who spends many years learning to study and treat diseases of the human mind. Treatments may consist of talking therapies, prescription drugs or both. This medical field is known as psychiatry.

social media     Internet-based media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, that allow people to connect with each other (often anonymously) and to share information.

Society for Science and the Public     A nonprofit organization created in 1921 and based in Washington, D.C. Since its founding, the Society has been promoting not only public engagement in scientific research but also the public understanding of science. It created and continues to run three renowned science competitions: the Regeneron Science Talent Search (begun in 1942), the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (initially launched in 1950) and Broadcom MASTERS (created in 2010). The Society also publishes award-winning journalism: in Science News (launched in 1922) and Science News for Students (created in 2003). Those magazines also host a series of blogs (including Eureka! Lab).

stress     (in biology) A factor — such as unusual temperatures, movements, moisture or pollution — that affects the health of a species or ecosystem. (in psychology) A mental, physical, emotional or behavioral reaction to an event or circumstance (stressor) that disturbs a person or animal’s usual state of being or places increased demands on a person or animal; psychological stress can be either positive or negative. (in physics) Pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

survey     (v.) To ask questions that glean data on the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region. (n.) The list of questions that will be offered to glean those data.

tweet     Message consisting of 140 or fewer characters that is available to people with an online Twitter account.

Twitter     An online social network that allows users to post messages containing no more than 280 characters (until November 2017, the limit had been just 140 characters).