In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook, and within days, some 600 students had created their accounts on the social platform. Today, the number of users on the platform stands at 2.93 billion.
Researchers theorize that the expansion of this social platform may have affected the mental well-being of youth. This is backed by CDC data, showing that between 2000 and 2007, the suicide rate among individuals aged between 10 and 24 was stable. However, in the period between 2007 and 2017, the rate increased by 57%.
Given this trend, it is important to understand the relationship between the use of technology and mental health, particularly concerning how youths use social media. However, the lack of causal studies on how social media affects the mental health of young people makes its hard to do so. To help with this, a group of researchers focused on filling this study gap.
The team included assistant professor Alexey Makarin of MIT Sloan, who led the study, along with Ro’ee Levy of Tel Aviv University and Luca Braghieri of Bocconi University. For their study, the investigators paired more than 400,000 responses from the National College Health Assessment with Facebook’s rollout. The National College Health Assessment is a survey of mental health and well-being that is conducted on campuses across America. This semiannual survey also examined other dimensions, including exercise habits and substance use.
The investigators discovered a link between the deterioration in mental health among students in college and Facebook. When this platform was launched in early 2004, access was restricted to individuals with a Harvard email address. By March, Facebook had expanded to Yale, Stanford and Columbia. This continued until 2006 September, when any individual aged 13 and above could create an account.
The researchers observed a substantial increase in the number of students who reported mental distress in 2005, noting that college-wide access to Facebook led to a 20% and 7% increase in anxiety disorder and severe depression, respectively. They also found that a large percentage of students who were most susceptible managed their symptoms with either antidepressants or psychotherapy.
In their report, the researchers stated that Facebook’s negative effect on mental health was about 20% the magnitude of what individuals who lose their job experience undergo. They hypothesized that the social platform’s effect was stronger on those who had been exposed to it for a longer period, adding that social media firms and policymakers needed to work toward alleviating the potentially harmful effects of social media on the mental well-being of its users.
The exploding cases of mental health illnesses call for new approaches in the way these diseases are managed or treated. Fortunately, some companies are making headway in coming up with a new class of therapeutics that promise to combat mental health issues from their source instead of simply alleviating the resultant symptoms.
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