Instagram Could Make Teens Less (Or Is It More?) Depressed

A new study finds the social media platform is linked with both positive and negative mental health outcomes

Source photo: Dreamstime
Apr 06, 2017 at 3:24 PM ET

A new study brings some welcome news for parents who are worried about their kids incessantly thumbing through glossy, filtered photos of their friends’ lives on Instagram. It turns out that adolescents’ use of Instagram is associated with a sense of greater closeness to their friends, which in turn lowers their likelihood of depression. But the same study gives parents something to worry about: It found that Instagram use is also linked to depressed mood.

“This study offers practitioners greater insight into the outcomes of adolescents’ Instagram use,” said author Eline Frison from the University of Leuven in Belgium. “More specifically, using Instagram can be both beneficial and harmful for adolescents’ well-being. If using Instagram stimulates adolescents’ closeness to friends, it is beneficial in the long run, but if Instagram is not capable of that stimulation, it is harmful in the long run.”

The study, which is as-yet unpublished and will be presented next month at the Annual Conference of the International Communication Association, surveyed 1,840 adolescents twice with six months in between about their use of Instagram. Researchers found that adolescents who used Instagram during the first survey were more likely to be depressed during the second survey. But here’s where things get more complicated: Adolescents who used Instagram during the first survey were also more likely to report closeness to their friends during the second survey and that, in turn, was negatively associated with depressed mood.

These findings add to a bevy of seemingly contradictory research about social media — some studies suggest it can make people feel more isolated, while others say it can help people feel more connected.

So, how can Instagram be associated with both lower and higher likelihood of depression? Well, researchers did not distinguish between types of Instagram use — for example, whether it was merely passive (meaning, an adolescent just browses their friends’ feeds) or active (meaning, they post comments on their friends’ photos). Past research has shown that different kinds of social media use can have different mental health outcomes — in general, active social media use is shown to have more positive impacts than passive use. As Frison told Vocativ in an email, “It is therefore possible that active Instagram use caused the positive outcomes … whereas passive Instagram caused the negative outcomes.” More research is needed, though, to determine exactly what is going on here.

In the meantime, young people and their parents can take heart that Instagram can, as with anything, be good or bad for you — it’s likely all in how you use it.