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Monday, November 1, 2021

Social Media and Mental Health

Luca Braghieri, Ro’ee Levy, and Alexey Makarin
Independent Research
August 21


The diffusion of social media coincided with a worsening of mental health conditions among adolescents and young adults in the United States, giving rise to speculation that social media might be detrimental to mental health. In this paper, we provide the first quasi-experimental estimates of the impact of social media on mental health by leveraging a unique natural experiment: the staggered introduction of Facebook across U.S. colleges. Our analysis couples data on student mental health around the years of Facebook’s expansion with a generalized difference-in-differences empirical strategy. We find that the roll-out of Facebook at a college increased symptoms of poor mental health, especially depression, and led to increased utilization of mental healthcare services. We also find that, according to the students’ reports, the decline in mental health translated into worse academic performance. Additional evidence on mechanisms suggests the results are due to Facebook fostering unfavorable social comparisons. 


Implications for social media today 

Our estimates of the effects of social media on mental health rely on quasi-experimental variation in Facebook access among college students around the years 2004 to 2006. Such population and time window are directly relevant to the discussion about the severe worsening of mental health conditions among adolescents and young adults over the last two decades. In this section, we elaborate on the extent to which our findings have the potential to inform our understanding of the effects of social media on mental health today. 

Over the last two decades, Facebook underwent a host of important changes. Such changes include: i) the introduction of a personalized feed where posts are ranked by an algorithm; ii) the growth of Facebook’s user base from U.S. college students to almost three billion active users around the globe (Facebook, 2021); iii) video often replacing images and text; iv) increased usage of Facebook on mobile phones instead of computers; and v) the introduction of Facebook pages for brands, businesses, and organizations. 

The nature of the variation we are exploiting in this paper does not allow us to identify the impact of these features of social media. For example, the introduction of pages, along with other changes, made news consumption on Facebook more common over the last decade than it was at inception. Our estimates cannot shed light on whether the increased reliance on Facebook for news consumption has exacerbated or mitigated the effects of Facebook on mental health. 

Despite these caveats, we believe the estimates presented in this paper are still highly relevant today for two main reasons: first, the mechanisms whereby social media use might affect mental health arguably relate to core features of social media platforms that have been present since inception and that remain integral parts of those platforms today; second, the technological changes undergone by Facebook and related platforms might have amplified rather than mitigated the effect of those mechanisms.