Friday, November 8, 2019

Are Aspects of Twitter Use Associated with Reduced Depressive Symptoms? It seems positive for lonely guys.

Are Aspects of Twitter Use Associated with Reduced Depressive Symptoms? The Moderating Role of In-Person Social Support. David A. Cole et al. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Vol. 22, No. 11, , Nov 7 2019.

Abstract: In a two-wave, 4-month longitudinal study of 308 adults, two hypotheses were tested regarding the relation of Twitter-based measures of online social media use and in-person social support with depressive thoughts and symptoms. For four of five measures, Twitter use by in-person social support interactions predicted residualized change in depression-related outcomes over time; these results supported a corollary of the social compensation hypothesis that social media use is associated with greater benefits for people with lower in-person social support. In particular, having a larger Twitter social network (i.e., following and being followed by more people) and being more active in that network (i.e., sending and receiving more tweets) are especially helpful to people who have lower levels of in-person social support. For the fifth measure (the sentiment of Tweets), no interaction emerged; however, a beneficial main effect offset the adverse main effect of low in-person social support.


This study examined the longitudinal effects of TU as a
means for offsetting the adverse effects of low social support
on depressive thoughts and symptoms. Two key results
emerged: first, support emerged for our corollary to the social
compensation (or poor-get-richer) hypothesis but not for the
rich-get-richer hypothesis. Four aspects of TU were related
to reductions in depressive thoughts and symptoms, but only
for people with low initial levels of in-person social support.
Second, conveying positive sentiment through Twitter predicted
a reduction in depressive thoughts and feelings, irrespective
of people’s level of in-person social support. Below,
we elaborate on these findings and their implications.
Our first set of findings was consistent with our corollary
to the social compensation hypothesis. People with low social
support showed improvements in depressive thoughts
and feelings over time if they reported four markers of TU:
following more people on Twitter, having more people follow
them on Twitter, posting more Tweets, and having more
of their posts retweeted by others. These markers were unrelated
to depressive thoughts and feelings of people who
already had high levels of in-person social support. These
results support Baker and Algorta’s observation that the effect
of social media on depression-related outcomes is
complicated by social, psychological, and behavioral moderators.
8 The current research provides longitudinal evidence
that in-person social support may be one such moderator.
These results also suggest that social media might be a way
to combat the adverse effects of low social support on mental
health. This possibility is commensurate with the conventional
wisdom that having one or two good friends in one
social niche can offset social adversity in other social niches.
48,49 Perhaps social media platforms represent a modern
version of such niches. We urge caution along these lines as
previous research has also shown that the relation of Twitter
with depression-related outcomes varies as a function of how
(and when) Twitter is used6,7,50–54 (also refer literature reviews
by Guntuku et al.55 and Hur and Gupta56).
Three reasons for this finding are possible.9,57 One is that
meeting people with similar interests or characteristics may
be easier online than in person, especially when such people
are not available within one’s in-person social networks.57–61
For people who lack these affiliations, connecting with others
online may have an especially strong impact. A second
explanation is that the online channels of communication are
simpler, such that people who find it challenging to develop
supportive in-person social networks may be more effective
in the more restricted online world of social media. One’s
ability to interpret nonverbal cues, one’s physical characteristics,
one’s proper use of vocal tone, and one’s timing of
social responses may be less important online than in person.
Nesi et al. referred to this as cue absence in their transformation
theory.62–65 In a related vein, online interactions tend
to be asynchronous. Delays between online communications
might allow people the time to compose more effective responses.
62 Understanding the mechanisms that underlie these
results represents an important avenue for future research.
A third explanation for these results is that the value added
by having online followers may not be as beneficial to people
who already have strong in-person social support, at least
insofar as reducing depressive thoughts and symptoms are
concerned. Some evidence even suggests that having a very
large number of online friends may actually be associated
with negative outcomes.66,67 The current interaction plots
in Figure 1 somewhat reflect this possibility, in that some of
our TU variables appeared to have adverse effects for people
who had strong in-person social supports. We caution
against overinterpreting this result, however, as the slopes for
participants with low social support were not statistically
Our second set of findings was the significant main effect of
Twitter sentiment, which offset the adverse effect of low inperson
social support. Two aspects of this result deserve
emphasis. First, this finding cannot be explained as consequences
of depression, as it derives from longitudinal analyses
in which prior levels of depression were statistically controlled.
Second, these results were not moderated by level of
social support. The effects of positive sentiment applied to
people at all levels of social support. Indeed, positive Twitter
sentiment offset much of the depressive effects of low inperson
social support. People with problematic social networks
but highly positive Twitter sentiment had similar levels
of depressive symptoms as did people with strong social
networks but more negative Twitter sentiment, reminiscent of
Granovetter’s early work on the strength of weak ties.68
Shapiro and Margolin’s extensive literature review describes
at least four reasons why effective use of online social
media platforms could offset the adverse effects of problematic
face-to-face relationships, especially with respect to
cognitive and emotional outcomes.57 First, people can engage
in selective self-presentation more easily online than in person.
By crafting carefully their online communications and
constructing their online persona, some people can accrue
more positive feedback online than they can in person, which
may in turn result in improvement on psychological outcomes.
64,65 Second, connecting with similar people or with
people who share similar interests may be easier for some
people online than in person, especially when such affiliations
are not available within in-person social networks.58–61 Third,
through the Internet, communicating with others from more
diverse intellectual, political, and social backgrounds can
expand one’s self-identity while enhancing feelings of belongingness
and affiliation.69 Trepte et al. hypothesized that
large, diverse groups may feel more connected with each
other online and are thus more likely to support each other.70
Fourth, self-disclosure may be easier online than in person,
potentially facilitating online social relationships or enabling
people to practice for in-person relationships.71,72
Taken together, these results begin to suggest interesting
supplemental strategies in the prevention of depression in
people who are at risk because of low social support. The
current findings, derived from one of very few longitudinal
studies in this area, increase our understanding about prospective
(not just correlational) relations and could have
implications for the use of social media in prevention research.
12 A powerful next step will be true experimental
research designs in which positive use of social media is
actively manipulated, so that its causal effect on mental
health outcomes can be assessed. If successful, online social
skills training could become a valuable component of comprehensive
depression prevention efforts.
Several shortcomings of this study suggest important avenues
for future research. The first focuses on our sentiment
analysis. Although examining the actual sentiment conveyed
by Twitter communications is a powerful step, in-depth
content analysis of people’s Tweets could reveal more about
more specific aspects of people’s communications that might
be responsible for the relation of sentiment with depressionrelated
outcomes. Furthermore, in short textual passages
(such as Tweets), it is extremely difficult to reliably measure
issues such as sarcasm and irony. Also, some kinds of negatively
toned messages (e.g., expressing distress) could serve
as triggers for positive responses (e.g., emotional support).
Second, depressive thoughts and symptoms are extremely
important mental health outcomes, emblematic of one of the
most common and debilitating classes of mental illnesses;
however, many other important clinical outcomes should
be explored, including Internet addiction, social anxiety,
and obsessive-compulsive disorder.73–75 Third, our study
focused only on Twitter. Other social media platforms exist
generate very different kinds of risks and benefits, which
should be explored. Fourth, we used an observational/
correlation research design, which leaves various ‘‘third
variables’’ uncontrolled. Random assignment to high versus
low Twitter conditions could control for self-selection factors
such as extraversion or level of depression. Fifth, although
use of MTurk for participant recruitment has certain
strengths, weaknesses have also been documented. These
include crosstalk among participants, misrepresentation of
personal characteristics to qualify for studies, and provision
of unreliable results.76–78 Although these issues do seem to
be characteristic of some MTurk participants, research shows
that these problems actually occur at similar rates in samples
obtained from more conventional methods.79 Future studies
should examine the generalizability of the current results
across a wider variety of populations.

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