The Health Effects of Social Media Use May Depend on Who’s Using It

Man in bed looking at his cell phone

Social media use (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, etc.) has become a key part of American social life. Many report spending over two hours a day connecting with others on social media, which is more time than they spend socializing face-to-face, eating, exercising, or completing household activities. Although a lot of research has addressed how increased social media use is affecting psychological well-being, little is known about how it impacts physical health. This study used MIDUS Refresher data to look at whether social media use is associated with chronic inflammation, which contributes to many illnesses, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.

Inflammation was assessed by measuring blood levels of two inflammatory markers, C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6). Participants reported on how many times a day they used social media to contact friends or contact family members who did not live with them. Researchers also looked at levels of self-esteem, which was measured by how strongly participants agreed with statements such as, “I certainly feel useless at times,” or “I take a positive attitude toward myself.” Studies have suggested that social interactions can have vastly different effects on people depending on their level of self-esteem.

Results showed that social media use was not directly associated with levels of inflammation (either CRP or IL-6). However, when self-esteem was taken into account, a significant association was found:

    • For those with lower self-esteem, spending more time on social media was associated with having higher levels of inflammation, for both CRP and IL-6.
    • For those with higher self-esteem, there was no correlation between social media use and inflammation.

These results held after controlling for socio-demographic information, health status, depressive symptoms, and medication usage.

Why does self-esteem matter? Social media use may be more stressful for those with low self-esteem:

    • They are more likely to be anxious and stressed in social situations, including on social media, because they fear disapproval and rejection from others.
    • They tend to interpret events in ways that support their negative self-views. For example, even if they receive a compliment on social media, it can make them feel insecure instead of pleased, if they don’t feel they deserve it.
    • They may compare themselves less favorably to others or become envious, especially because people on social media are more likely to portray themselves in overly positive ways while downplaying their problems.

In contrast, people with high self-esteem are less worried about rejection, and are more likely to focus on the positive aspects of interactions, accepting compliments as an affirmation of their positive self-views.

These results suggest that social media use may be more likely to cause stress for those lacking self-esteem, and chronic stress is associated with increased inflammation. As a result, it may be that social media is not a nurturing space for those who struggle with self-esteem issues.

Source: Lee, D. S., & Way, B. M. (2021). Social media use and systemic inflammation: The moderating role of self-esteem. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity – Health, 16, Article 100300.

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