The introduction of Facebook contributed to an increase of mental health troubles—particularly increased anxiety and depression—among adolescents and young adults in the United States, according to a recent study published in peer-reviewed academic journal The American Economic Review.

The study, which was authored by researchers at Bocconi University, Tel Aviv University and MIT, concludes “that social media has a negative impact on mental health and played a role in the increase in mental illness among adolescents and young adults over the past two decades,” with “unfavorable social comparisons” fostered by platforms like Facebook the leading culprit for increased symptoms of poor mental health among young people.

While it’s not the first time that research has analyzed the impact of social media on mental health outcomes, the authors of this study claim their research provides “the most comprehensive causal evidence to date on the effects of social media on mental health.” They arrived at their conclusion through the use of a unique experiment: They retraced the initial rollout of Facebook—then called “TheFacebook”—that began in 2004 at Harvard, followed by Columbia, Stanford and Yale before becoming available to other universities, and then, the rest of the world in 2006.

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Researchers then paired that rollout with medical-response data supplied during that time period by students at those campuses to the National College Health Assessment, a semi-annual survey of mental health and well-being data conducted at colleges across the country.

Collecting survey data on college students’ mental health during Facebook’s early expansion, researchers discovered that within the first five semesters of being exposed to the platform, college students’ likelihood of being diagnosed with depression rose by 32 percent, the probability that a student would be in therapy for depression increased by around 50 percent and the odds that they were on anti-depressant medication grew by 33 percent.

They additionally found students who’d been introduced to Facebook were more likely to report that mental health had negatively affected their academic performance and that their mental health worsened with increased exposure to the platform. They calculate that the introduction of Facebook is responsible for a 24 percent increase in the prevalence of severe depression among college students over the last two decades.

The study’s authors noted these findings should be interpreted with caution for several reasons, namely, that mental-health surveys often suffer from measurement error, that the data in the study are limited to college students, and that years of exposure to platforms like Facebook may actually teach users ways to mitigate the negative effects these sites have on mental health. The study’s authors also pointed out that Facebook’s negative mental-health effects appear to be strongest among students who are most susceptible to mental illness.

Years of research have reinforced the idea that there’s a causal link between social media and a decline in mental health among teenagers and young adults. A 2007 study published in The Lancet, widely considered the world’s premier medical journal, found that the mental health of adolescents and young adults in the U.S. began declining as social media sites gained popularity in the mid-2000s.

The rise of teen depression and suicide in the last decade has also been widely documented. Between 2011 and 2018, rates of depression increased by more than 60 percent among U.S. adolescents, according to 2020 findings published in Current Opinion in Psychology. The Centers for Disease Control presented similar findings, showing that the suicide rate among Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 increased 57 percent between 2007 and 2017. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for Americans 15–24 years of age, according to 2021 findings from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. The number of teenagers who reported experiencing depression increased by 59 percent between 2007 and 2017, according to 2019 data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

“Social Media and Mental Health,” was published in the Oct. edition of The American Economic Review. Published by the American Economic Association, The American Economic Review is considered one of the most respected scholarly journals in the field of economics.