According to research, social media has not helped prevent anxiety and depression during the pandemic

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Keeping in touch via video, phone and instant messaging did little to help prevent an increase in people’s anxiety and depression during the pandemic restrictions, according to a new major UK study.

According to research, many young people who used video and messaging more often with friends and family who they could not meet face to face experienced a decline in mental health.

Dr Patrick Rouxel and Professor Tarani Chandola from the University of Hong Kong analyzed data on the internet use, mental health and social isolation of more than 16,000 people from four UK surveys conducted during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. They found that:

  • Those who used video or phone daily to keep in touch with family and friends outside the home were only 3% lower on the anxiety-depressive scale than those who never did.
  • People who used instant messaging such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp daily had the same anxiety-depressive score as those who never used them.
  • People in their 20s who used social media sporadically before the pandemic had 10% higher anxiety-depressive scores if they used it daily while in isolation, compared to their peers who used it 2-3 times a week week in isolation.

Early in the pandemic, several commentators suggested that online modes of communication, and video technology in particular, could reduce social distancing during the pandemic, researchers write in a paper published in Sociology.

“We found little evidence to support the idea that online modes of social contact can compensate for restrictions on in-person contact during the pandemic.

“The mental health constraints of reducing in-person social contact during the pandemic have not been compensated by online or telephone modes of social contact.

“Young adults who have increased their use of social media online during the pandemic have experienced a decline in mental health. Early adulthood is a sensitive time in the life cycle for social relationships, and the increase in online social media use during the pandemic is having an adverse impact on mental health.”

The study also found that people whose finances worsened during lockdown had a quarter higher levels of anxiety and depression than those who didn’t.

The researchers used data collected by: the Millennium Cohort Study of people born between 2000 and 2002; Next steps for people born in 1989–1990; UK cohort study of people born in 1970; and the National Child Development Study for those born in 1958. All surveys asked about anxiety and depression.

The study covered the periods of May 2020, during the first lockdown; September and October 2020, when restrictions were lifted in many places; and February and March 2021, during the third lockdown.

Because the surveys only started in May 2020, the study does not measure the initial overall increase in anxiety-depression when the first lockdown began in March. However, people’s reaction to subsequent lockdowns and to the end of the first and second lockdowns can be measured. Researchers found that overall, people who had to switch from meeting friends and family outside the home to keeping in touch online saw their levels of anxiety and depression increase by up to 5%.

Researchers created an anxiety and depression scale by combining responses to the 2-item Generalized Anxiety Disorder and 2-item Patient Health Questionnaire. The GAD-2 is a generalized anxiety disorder screening tool with questions about “feeling nervous, anxious, or jittery” and “inability to stop or control worrying” in the last two weeks. The PHQ-2 asks about the frequency of depressed mood and anhedonia with questions about “little interest or pleasure in doing things” and “feeling down, depressed, or hopeless” in the past two weeks.

Responses for both GAD-2 and PHQ-2 ranged from 1 (not at all), 2 (a few days), 3 (more than half the days), and 4 (almost daily). The average of the four items in each wave was generated in a range of 1 to 4, with higher values ​​indicating greater anxiety and depression. The researchers also used the Kessler scale, a quantifier of nonspecific mental distress (only available in the MCS cohort). It consists of six questions about the symptoms of depression and anxiety that the person has experienced in the last 30 days. The answers ranged from 1 (all the time) to 5 (never). The average of the six items in each wave was generated in a range of 1 to 5, with higher values ​​indicating greater psychological stress.

More information:
Patrick Rouxel et al., No substitute for face-to-face interaction: Changing ways of social contact during the coronavirus pandemic and the impact on adult mental health in the UK, Sociology (2023). DOI: 10.1177/00380385231172123

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