Studies have linked the use of social media to depression, but addiction to social media, rather than use alone, may explain the connection, new research suggests.

"We believe that at least having clinicians be aware of these associations may be valuable to them as they treat patients with depressive disorders. For example, they may wish to inquire about social media use patterns and determine if those patterns are maladaptive," coauthor Ariel Shensa of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine told Reuters Health by email.

Shensa and her team randomly selected 1,763 participants, ages 19-32, and asked them about their depressive symptoms, social media use and addictive behaviors.

Social media use was measured by the number of visits and amount of time spent on 11 popular social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat and Reddit.

To assess addiction to social media, the researchers modified a survey called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale, looking at addictive behaviors such as mood modification, withdrawal and relapse.

In a presentation March 30 at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Washington, DC, the researchers reported that half the participants spent at least an hour a day on non-work related social media use and made 30 site visits per week.

Depending on whether the researchers used narrow or broad criteria for addiction, 14 to 44 percent of participants had scores that suggested a problem.

As expected, high social media usage was linked to higher addiction scores. But after taking addiction scores into consideration, social media use and depression were not significantly linked.

Addiction and depression did appear to be linked, however. Addiction seemed to explain roughly three-quarters of the effect of social media use on depression, the researchers found.

"Ultimately, it appears that the way social media is used, rather than the amount social media is used, leads to maladaptive outcomes," says Lindsay Howard of the Virginia Consortium Program in Clinical Psychology in Norfolk, who was not involved in the study.

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Howard found similarities in the study with her own research, which she also presented at the conference. Her team found that the act of seeking reassurance through social media may be related to higher degrees of dissatisfaction with one's body and eating disorders, but the frequency of social media use was not tied to those depressive symptoms.

"Physicians should educate their patients regarding how social media use may be related to depression and other negative outcomes," Howard said. "They might also recommend the use of applications such as 'Freedom' that allow patients to limit how often and when they use social media." Howard says. (The Freedom app is available online.