Questions about technology's impacts on health are often focused on physical effects: how tough typing is on your hands and wrists, how harsh screens are on your eyes, and so on. Many studies indicate that continuous use of computers disturbs sleep in both young adults and children. Some studies have noted that there may be a relationship between the use of online social networks and depression and anxiety. When discussing technology's impact on health -- mental health in particular -- it's important to determine why this question is being asked and understand that answers may vary.
How Social Networks Tie Into Mental Health
Traditional social networks consist of friends, coworkers, and family. These networks serve a dual function when it comes to mental health. A strong, positive traditional social network can act as a shield against depression and anxiety. Likewise, dysfunctional relationships in your physical social circle can cause or exacerbate feelings of sadness, uneasiness, and even loneliness. With more than half of online adults now interacting on multiple social networking sites (SNS), researchers have begun to ask whether virtual social networks function like traditional social networks.
From 2005 to 2015, hundreds of studies explored the relationship between depression and SNS, anxiety and SNS, and social networking and well-being. A recent Australian study looked at 70 of these published results. The authors found that in order to understand possible relationships between mental health and online social network use, researchers considered many factors. These issues include motivations for using SNS, how often and how long they were used, and what the sites were used; the number of strangers a SNS user follows; which sites he or she visits; and whether the user is active (participates in discussions with others) or mostly reads what others have to say. All of these questions and many more are seemingly critical to understanding the role that social networking sites might play in a user's mental health.
The Jury Is Out
Mental or physical, measuring technology's impact on health is complicated, and the research into these questions is ongoing. This is good news. High-quality information is society's goal, so it's key to have many good-quality studies. Because of the large number of influences on mental health and the numerous ways people use SNS, extra care is required before making any claims.
For example, if one study indicates that people who report negative experiences on social networks also report more depression, users still can't know for certain that negative experiences on social networks cause depression. Computer usage at the wrong time of day or for too many hours in a day can cause poor sleep, which causes depression. Poor diet and exercise also contribute to having low energy, poor concentration, feelings of uneasiness, and a more depressed mood -- all of which make someone more likely to report being depressed and/or anxious, regardless of how much technology he or she uses.
The rise of online social networking is recent and the questions are complex. With so many life stressors to be accounted for, it's difficult to know how much of a user's reported depression or anxiety is caused by the social network itself and how he or she uses it. In time, and with more research, any real connections that exist between SNS use and mental health will be brought to the forefront. Meanwhile, one thing seems to be consistent: The number of contacts someone has in his or her online social network neither protects from nor contributes to reported levels of depression. So what has been true for human networks since the beginning of time may still be true for networks online; it's the quality, not the quantity, of our friendships that makes the difference in our lives.