Greater experiences of “telepresence” — which refer to a user’s sense of immersion in the world created by social media apps — among both TikTok and Instagram users are linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety, according to new research published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking.
The study examined “flow” experiences resulting from social media use. Flow was first introduced by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s to describe a mental state that occurs when someone is fully immersed in an activity. In the context of social media, flow experiences may occur when someone is scrolling through their feed and is fully engrossed in the content they are consuming.
“My research interests include the relationship between smartphone and social media use and psychological well-being,” said study author James A. Roberts, the Ben H. Williams Professor of Marketing in the Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University
“Given these interests, I am very familiar with the different social media apps available. My personal experience with TikTok suggests that it is potentially highly addictive. The popularity of Instagram across a wide range of age groups (especially teens and young adults) and its recent ties to teen eating disorders drew my attention to it.”
The researchers recruited participants who lived in the United States, were at least 18 years old, and had used TikTok and/or Instagram. The sample included 195 Instagram users (mean age = 38) and 225 TikTok users (mean age = 37). Objective measures of time spent on social media were obtained by having the participants check their phone for the exact amount of time spent on the relevant apps.
To assess flow experiences, the researchers adapted the Facebook Flow Questionnaire by replacing “Facebook” with either “TikTok” or “Instagram.” The questionnaire assessed five different dimensions: focused attention, enjoyment, curiosity, telepresence, and time distortion. The participants also completed measures of the fear of missing out (FOMO), social media addiction, anxiety, and depression.
The researchers found that 24% of TikTok users and 28% of Instagram users would qualify as addicted according to diagnostic criteria. Among the flow subscales, telepresence was found to have the highest correlation with social media addiction, mind wandering, FOMO, and anxiety and depression.
Those with a high level of telepresence agree with statements such as “Using [Tiktok/Instagram] often makes me forget where I am and what currently happens around me” and “While using [Tiktok/Instagram], the world generated by the sites I visit is more real for me than the real world.”
TikTok users reported higher levels of overall flow, as well as higher levels of enjoyment and time distortion, compared to Instagram users. “People become so engrossed while using TikTok that they will neglect other activities,” Roberts said.
The study may have a limitation because it did not investigate how people use social media platforms differently, such as passive vs. active usage. Previous research suggests that passive usage of social media, such as so-called “doom scrolling,” can lower psychology well-being. But some research also indicates that active use, such as talking with others, can improve well-being.
“Research is still needed that strives to better understand why people use a particular social media,” Roberts said. “The reasons are many and likely impact the well-being of the user differently. And, how someone uses social media (actively or passively) has also been found to drive user experience.”
“I think social media may be, as Thoreau presciently stated nearly 170 years ago about mankind’s inventions, ‘They are but improved means to an unimproved end …’ These social media may provide an escape from everyday worries, although a suboptimal coping strategy,” the researcher added.
The study, “Instagram and TikTok Flow States and Their Association with Psychological Well-Being“, James A. Roberts and Meredith E. David.