Studies have long found that social media can be harmful for mental health. However, new research suggests that using WhatsApp might actually be beneficial for mental health. The Independent reports that in a new study, published in The International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, researchers at Edge Hill University discovered that when you interact with friends and family on WhatsApp, it can increase your self-esteem and decrease feelings of loneliness.
"There's lots of debate about whether spending time on social media is bad for our well-being but we've found it might not be as bad as we think," said Dr. Linda Kaye, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, according to The Independent.
These findings may be confusing, as they challenge previously published studies. For example, a 2018 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found that limiting social media use to 30 minutes a day decreased depression and loneliness. But Kaye said that their study found something different. “The more time people spent on WhatsApp, the more this related to them feeling close to their friends and family and they perceived these relationships to be good quality," Kaye said.
Other apps have also been shown to be harmful to mental health. A 2017 survey of almost 1,500 young people found that Instagram and Snapchat were the worst apps for their mental health because they increased feelings of inadequacy. Other platforms had problems too; a 2016 study by the University of Copenhagen discovered the phenomenon of "Facebook envy,” where users found themselves jealous after watching other peoples’ lives unfold on the Facebook app. It’s possible that WhatsApp’s features — which are basically just chatting — are what separate the chat app from these other platforms.
Because interestingly, in the U.S., WhatsApp is widely used among many immigrants and others who want to connect with friends in other countries. Maybe people feel that this app’s primary function is connection, not comparison, and this is what is fueling the positive impact on mental health. A 2018 study published in the Cyberpsychology Behavior Network showed that passively using social media — think, just scrolling or liking posts — resulted in a 33% increase in depression. In contrast, actively social media use — meaning chatting with people or creating content — resulted in a 15% decrease in depression.
There are other online communities that are tapping into the benefits of creating these connections, providing online spaces where Black women, people who've moved to a new place, artists, and people who want to learn about body positivity can find meaningful relationships and insight. And even though Facebook has plenty of issues, people have found spaces for healing and community within the private groups.
Whatever the reason, it’s important that researchers keep analyzing the impact that social media has on the health of communities. Kaye told The Independent that the research is necessary because, "It gives rise to the notion that social technology such as WhatsApp may stimulate existing relationships and opportunities for communication, thereby enhancing aspects of the users' positive wellbeing."
This latest study has the potential to change the way that people think about mental health and social media. We know that there are many drawbacks, of course. But there also might be a treasure trove of benefits that haven't been discovered yet. And like Kaye said, in an age where people are more connected to technology than ever, researchers should invest energy and time into ensuring that those experiences as positive as possible.