research news

UB researcher receives $2.7 million grant to explore social media links with inflammation, depression

A sad looking young person holds a cell phone while resting their head on their folded arms.


Published November 17, 2023

David Lee.
“Social media is here to stay, which means we have to better understand why people use it, how they use it and why it’s producing deleterious effects on well-being and health, especially for vulnerable populations. ”
David Lee, assistant professor
Department of Communication

A UB researcher has received a $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health for a five-year study that explores the relationship between inflammation and social media use and their possible link to depression in vulnerable populations.

At first glance, that association seems implausible, but previous research has suggested a link between the two, and learning more about the nature and nuances of that relationship is imperative.

To start, don’t think in terms of acute inflammation. That’s the immune system’s response to injury or infection that can produce swelling or a fever. Acute inflammation is usually short term, and distinct from chronic, low-grade inflammation, which is often triggered by factors other than wounds and contagions.

Stress, lack of sleep or exercise, obesity, or socio-environmental factors also produce an inflammatory response that can linger for months, even years. Chronic inflammation is detectable in the blood, but otherwise is not likely to outwardly present itself.

A person might not even be aware of such chronic inflammation; yet its long-term effects on depression and chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes are well established.

The National Institutes of Health estimates that chronic inflammation contributes to more than half of deaths worldwide, including those related to mental illnesses, such as depression. 

“The past decade has witnessed a sharp increase in the depression rates of adolescents,” says David Lee, assistant professor of communication, College of Arts and Sciences, and the grant’s co-principal investigator. “One common hypothesis for this change is the rapid spread of social media use by this group.”

Lee, an expert in the consequences of social media use, says the statistics are alarming, especially when it comes to teenage girls.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that more than half of teenage girls felt “persistently sad or hopeless,” and 30% reported seriously considering suicide, an increase of 60% from 10 years ago.

Lee has published research suggesting inflammation leads to social media use, and he has another paper in press suggesting that using social media can lead to inflammation. His research has also helped distinguish active social media use (aSMU), which involves direct interaction with other users, from passive social media use (pSMU), which involves browsing without interacting with others.

“Our previous work showed that pSMU leads to greater social comparisons and envy, which led to declines in well-being and increased stress,” says Lee. “Given the evidence from prior work showing that interpersonal stressors like conflict, marital discord or social rejection can erode the immune system, it is not unreasonable to think that certain experiences on social media can have a similar effect.

“Altered activity in these systems are well-documented risk factors for increased depressive symptoms,” he adds.

There’s some evidence that abstaining from social media moderates its negative effects, but full, continuous abstinence among youth is an unrealistic option, according to Lee.

“Social media is here to stay, which means we have to better understand why people use it, how they use it and why it’s producing deleterious effects on well-being and health, especially for vulnerable populations,” he says.

The research team working on this grant builds on expertise in social media; GPS tracking; ecological momentary assessment, or EMA, which uses participants’ smartphones to sample behaviors and experiences in real time; and stress biology to further understand the bidirectional relationship between social media use and biopsychology.

A racially diverse adolescent sample of 400 participants will be assessed every two weeks during a two-month period, and three months after that. The team will use EMA for both the first and last two weeks of the two-month period to understand emotional responses to social media use. In addition to the self-reports of pSMU, the researchers will continuously assess pSMU through an app that monitors all keystrokes on participants’ phones, while GPS tracking determines exposures to stressful environments.

“The collection of rich social media use data will help us understand when and how youth use social media for what purpose, and allow researchers to move beyond focusing on screentime, like how much time youth are spending on social media or smartphone, as a risk factor,” Lee says.

“Using the app allows us to collect social media data without interrupting participants’ daily life. Furthermore, the GPS tracking methodology provides the opportunity to examine location-based stressors that may be particular for Black youth, such as policing activity and exposure to predominantly white neighborhoods,” he explains. “In our prior work we have shown that Black youth report less perceived safety on their EMAs when in predominantly white neighborhoods and that less perceived safety is associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol.”

At the biological level, the researchers will measure participants blood for elevated levels of C-Reactive Protein, a biomarker for inflammation.

“We have to figure this out,” says Lee. “And this grant will help us get a better picture.”