Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Aug 23, 2019

Does Social Media Make Us Sad, Stupid, and Narcissistic?

by Markus Appel
Group of young adults interacting with their mobile phones

The rise of smartphones and social media—such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—is arguably one of the most challenging developments that individuals, families, and societies are faced with today. Many recent books and news articles highlight the negative psychological implications of social media use. It seems that the grimmer the picture drawn, the better the sales of these books and the higher the number of clicks generated. But is this pessimistic assessment backed by research evidence?

Over the last ten years, thousands of scholarly articles were published on the correlates and consequences of social media use. For example, studies show that the more that teenagers use social media, the sadder and lonelier they feel. Other studies, however, reported a reverse pattern: The more the merrier! And other studies find no relationship at all. Given the large number of diverging findings on the effects of social media, commentators sometimes cherry-pick whatever study result fits their scientific, journalistic, or personal goals. This is a conundrum that is common to many research fields in the social and behavioral sciences.

One way to make sense of many of these contradictory results is to conduct a meta-analysis—a statistical procedure that boils down existing evidence by combining data across many studies that have been conducted on the same topic. In an article to be published in Review of General Psychology, my colleagues Caroline Marker, Timo Gnambs, and I reviewed what recent meta-analyses have to say about the relationship between social media use on the one hand and well-being, school achievement, and narcissism on the other. We chose these three topics because they have attracted a vast amount of research, and several meta-analyses have been conducted on research findings on these topics.

Here is what you need to know about each of these topics:

Social media use and well-being. Four meta-analyses have addressed the relationship between social media use and indicators of psychological well-being. These analyses aggregated data from up to 30 studies that included over 22,000 participants. The studies provide only weak support for the idea that social media use (measured by the frequency of log-ins or the time spent with social media) is associated with greater loneliness, lower self-esteem, lower life satisfaction, or self-reported depression. Thus, there is no support for the claim that social media has potentially devastating effects on people's well-being.

Social media use and school achievement. The relationship between social media use and school achievement was examined by three meta-analyses, summarizing up to 50 studies and 100,000 participants. All three meta-analyses identified only small associations between the frequency of log-ins or the time spent with social media and students' school grades. For adolescents, there is no association at all. Moreover, studies indicate that using social media for academic purposes is associated with getting higher grades in school.

Social media use and narcissism. Some researchers have argued that people's narcissistic tendencies can be expressed and nourished by engaging with social media. Three meta-analyses that were based on up to 57 studies and 25,000 participants found some support for a link between social media and narcissism. Narcissists tend to have more social media friends, and the frequency of posting and sharing pictures is particularly strongly associated with narcissism.

Interestingly, these relationships between social media use and narcissism appear to be larger in non-Western than in Western countries. The cultures in many non-Western countries may provide fewer opportunities for narcissists to show off and assert their superiority in the off-line world. So, narcissists in those countries may find social media more useful for getting attention from other people.  

After reviewing these meta-analyses, my colleagues and I conclude that available evidence does not support the assumption that social media use has—on average—severe detrimental consequences. Our conclusion is, of course, not a final verdict. But at present, evidence does not support the idea that social media has highly negative consequences in these three areas.


For Further Reading:

Appel, M., Gnambs, T., & Marker, C. (2019). Are social media ruining our lives? A review of meta-analytic evidence. Review of General Psychology. Ahead-of-Print

URL to open access preprint: https://tinyurl.com/y3d3xmvh

See also: www.meta-internet.com for more information

 

Markus Appel is a Professor and head of the Psychology of Communication and New Media lab at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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