The Social Media Malady

From Instagram to inflammation, a UB researcher aims to connect the dots.

Teen sitting on floor depressed with phone.

Adolescent mental health has declined sharply over the past decade. According to a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey, more than half of teenage girls reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, and 30% reported having considered suicide—an increase of 60% from 10 years earlier.

The spread of social media is suspected to be a reason for the alarming rise, which is more pronounced in girls but affects boys too. Now a University at Buffalo researcher is putting that likelihood at the forefront of a new study.

With a $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, David Lee, assistant professor of communication, along with a team of researchers at Ohio State University, is investigating the relationship between social media use and chronic inflammation—a well-documented risk factor for depressive symptoms—as a step toward understanding the problem and finding solutions.

A complex association

Stress, lack of sleep or exercise, obesity, or socio-environmental factors can produce an inflammatory response that may linger for months, even years. Such chronic inflammation is estimated to contribute to more than half of deaths worldwide, including those related to mental illnesses, such as depression.

Lee has already published a line of research showing an association between social media use and inflammation. His most recent paper (part of the NIMH-funded study) established directionality—social media use is driving higher inflammation—and showed that social media use can predict increased levels of inflammation over time.

His research has also helped differentiate the effects of active social media use, which involves direct interaction with others, and passive social media use, or simply browsing. According to Lee, the latter kind has been shown to lead to social comparison and envy, which increases stress and detracts from well-being.

Rich data to provide better answers

The study, for which Lee serves as co-principal investigator, involves a racially diverse adolescent sample of 400 participants.

The research team is using an innovative research approach called mobile sensing methods, or MSMs, by tracking participants’ smartphones to sample their behaviors and experiences in real time without interrupting their daily life.

GPS information allows the researchers to examine location-based stressors, which could provide insights into the experiences of specific subpopulations. For example, Lee said, prior research has shown that Black youth report less perceived safety when in predominantly white neighborhoods, a response associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

At the biological level, the researchers are testing participants’ blood for elevated levels of a biomarker for inflammation.

Lee noted that the rich data will help demonstrate when and how youth use social media, and for what purpose, providing a fuller picture than focusing only on screen-time could.

Facing the problem head on

While there’s evidence that abstaining from social media can moderate its negative effects, total abstinence is an unrealistic option for most youth, said Lee.

“Social media is here to stay, which means we have to better understand why people use it, how they use it, and why it’s producing effects on well-being and health, especially for vulnerable populations,” he said.