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Risk of depression grows with more time spent on Facebook: NTU study

SINGAPORE – The more time people spend on Facebook, the higher the risk of suffering from depression, a study has found.

The study by researchers at Nanyang Technological University also found that those with signs of depression linked to Facebook use go on to spend even more time on the social networking site – and sink deeper into a vicious circle of depression.

The Singapore-wide online study started in 2016 with 1,240 people aged between 18 and 64. In the three years it took to finish, participants dropped out for a host of reasons and only 355 responses were valid for use in the study.

The findings were published last month by Associate Professor Edson C. Tandoc Jr and research fellow Zhang Hao Goh, who are from the NTU Centre for Information Integrity and the Internet or In-Cube.

Their study also found that more Facebook use triggered higher levels of envy, which then led to feelings of depression.

Prof Tandoc, who is the In-Cube director and also teaches at the NTU Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, said: “Social rank theory says we engage in social comparison, which is something we cannot escape because it’s how we make sense of our own social identity.

“But this process of comparison can lead to us feeling down when we see someone having more resources than we do.”

Education Minister Chan Chun Sing, in a dialogue with students last month, said social media use can invoke a fear of missing out – or Fomo in common usage – and comparison among teenagers when they see peers having fun.

In 2017, Facebook was the top social media app used in Singapore, said a Reuters Institute Digital News Report. Last year, the social networking site became Singapore’s most used social media application after WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook.

The NTU study draws parallels to a similar study involving 736 college students in the United States that Prof Tandoc co-wrote. The US study found that passive Facebook use like viewing a friend’s photos or scrolling through news items on the platform could lead to depression in more envious participants.

However, no significant difference between passive Facebook use and actively posting on the platform was observed among Singapore residents, said Prof Tandoc.

While younger and more educated participants in Singapore reported higher levels of Facebook use and depression, Prof Tandoc said the impact of age and education levels was marginal.

In the NTU study, participants aged between 18 and 65 spent an average of about two and a half hours on Facebook daily.

When respondents indicated they were feeling envious, there was a stronger relationship between Facebook use and signs of depression.

Participants, the study found, were then likely to use the app even more, instead of stopping.

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Counsellor Edmund Chong, from online counselling service Talk Your Heart Out, said comparing oneself with others on the Internet has a twofold effect because people perceive only the good side of others and might feel inferior as a result.

This can also compel them to present the best version of themselves when they see others leading a life that appears ideal.

He said: “When we see the good side of other people, we feel the pressure to be richer, more beautiful, successful and have more followers.”

Mr Chong added that the people he sees have depression caused by issues like conflict with others or acute environmental stress factors like retrenchment or major illness. However, social media is a common contributing factor that worsens the stress, he said.

Seeking recognition and validation on social media, people get upset when they do not get as many likes and comments as they hoped for, he added.

The solution to the problem lies with those who use social media, said Mr Chong.

Self-awareness, he added, is the first step in curbing the negative impact of social media.

He said: “When we are aware of our motivation, triggers, likes, dislikes and intention of using social media, we are less affected by it.

“We have to constantly remind ourselves that we are in some ways similar to everyone else on social media. Even in happy families, there can be arguments, disagreements or feelings of resentment.”

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