Social media use in college students linked to poor physical health, research finds

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It’s no surprise there are psychological impacts to using social media regularly – but what about the impact on physical health? A new study examines the connection between the social media use of college students and their physical health.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Buffalo, was published in the journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.

Researchers recruited a diverse sample of 251 undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 24 for the study. Participants provided a blood sample that was analyzed for C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of chronic inflammation. They also completed self-report measures of social media use, somatic symptoms, illness-related physician or health center visits, and whether they sought medical care for infection-related illnesses in the last three months. The study looked at engagement on four social media platforms that were most popular during the time the data was collected in 2017: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram.

According to the study, participants who used social media excessively were found to have higher levels of CRP, more somatic symptoms, like headaches, chest and back pains, and more visits to the doctor or health centers for an illness. All these results held after controlling for factors such as sociodemographic information and depressive symptoms.

“We were able to establish a correlation between the amount of social media use and these physical health indicators,” said David Lee, PhD, the paper’s first author and assistant professor of communication in the UB College of Arts and Sciences. “The more participants used social media, the more somatic symptoms they experienced and visits to the doctor they reported. They also showed higher levels of chronic inflammation. By looking at a biological marker in the blood, we were able to find a relatively more objective association between social media usage and physical health, but this correlational finding can’t rule out the possibility that poor health impacts social media usage.”

Given the prevalence of social media use in daily life, these findings can support integrative practitioners in conversations with their patients about time on social media and the impact on their physical health.