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Is excessive social media use linked to poorer health? Researchers say yes

  • 26 Jan 2022

Researchers in the US have measured social media usage of 251 undergraduate students and their health, finding a link between high social media usage and poor physical health.

Excessive use of social media can lead to high inflammation in a human body and cause symptoms such as headaches, chest and back pains, new research reveals. ( Getty Images )

Excessive use of social media can lead to high inflammation in a human body and cause symptoms such as headaches, chest and back pains, new research reveals. 

A group of researchers from the University of Buffalo and the Ohio State University have discovered a correlation between social media usage and poor physical health.

In a peer-reviewed study, they write that they tested college students for C-reactive protein (CRP), which points to inflammation due to an infection. C-reactive protein levels in a person’s blood can also help diagnose a chronic inflammatory disease or determine someone’s risk of heart disease.

The study found that participants who used social media excessively had higher levels of CRP. The researchers also found that the higher the social media use, the more somatic symptoms (such as headaches, chest and back pains) and visits to doctors and health centres for the treatment of illness, the study explains.

“Social media use has become an integral part of many young adults’ daily lives,” says David Lee, PhD, the paper’s first author and assistant professor of communication in the University of Buffalo College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s critical that we understand how engagement across these platforms contributes to physical health.”

Lee et al write in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that a recent survey indicates that “Americans average about 144 minutes per day on social media – more time than they spend exercising, directly socialising with others, or eating.”

The researchers also mention that Generation Z (people born in the late 1990s and early 2000s) are particularly high users of social media, with about six hours of their days spent texting, online, and on social media and report being online on a “near-constant” basis.

While there have been many studies that focus on the impact of social media use on psychological well-being, the researchers say, there haven't been many studies that examine how social media use is related to physical health. 

“This [that there aren’t more studies focusing on the relation between social media usage and physical well-being] is surprising,” they write, “given the prevalence of social media in daily lives, and the close link between psychological well-being and physical health.”

The researchers do note a few studies in recent years that have focused on social media usage and physical health, which also suggested a link between the two, the research was largely reliant on self-reporting or the effects of usage with exclusively one platform, the news release notes.

“Our goal was to extend prior work by examining how social media use across several platforms is associated with physical health outcomes measured with biological, behavioural and self-report measures,” says Lee, an expert on health outcomes related to social interactions.

Asking how social media use might relate to physical health, the researchers write that one potential pathway “might be through altering health behaviours.”

They note that several studies suggest that high levels of social media use may affect sleep by reducing the amount and quality of it. They emphasise that especially for those who use social media excessively, who display “addictive social media or mobile phone use” can lead to “reduced sleep quality and insomnia.” And lower quality or quantity of sleep leads to poorer physical health, “including elevated risks for cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and early mortality.”

The authors write that this perspective aligns with the displacement hypothesis, which posits that “time spent on social media may have detrimental effects by displacing activities that are beneficial to well-being and health – for example, sleep, exercise, or face-to-face interactions.”

Then there is the increased stress factor that comes into play with hyperconnectivity. And with more stress comes worse health, as it can “increase the number and severity of somatic symptoms, the probability of infection and the severity of symptoms following exposure to a cold virus, and systemic inflammation.”

Thus the researchers formed a hypothesis that high levels of social media use may relate to worse physical health, and examined these thoughts on college students who are the age group most actively engaged in social media.

They had 251 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 to 24 participate in the study, who gave blood samples and completed questionnaires on physical health and social media usage on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram (the surveys were done in 2017 and these were the most popular platforms at the time.)

The researchers also cross checked the students’ answers with another survey that “measured validity by determining the degree to which participants took their role in the study seriously.”

“We were able to establish a correlation between the amount of social media use and these physical health indicators,” said Lee. “The more participants used social media, the more somatic symptoms they experienced and visits to the doctor they reported.  They also showed higher levels of chronic inflammation.”

According to Lee, this study is just the start of beginning to understand the relationship between social media and social health.

“By looking at a biological marker in the blood, we were able to find a relatively more objective association between social media usage and physical health, but this correlational finding can’t rule out the possibility that poor health impacts social media usage,” says Lee.

Lee adds that “In our previous research, we found those high in self-esteem benefited from using social media, but people low in self-esteem did not. So, the effect may be more nuanced.”

“There’s still work to be done,” says Lee. “But right now, I wanted to get the word out there that social media use may have a link to important physical health outcomes.”

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