A new study finds that teens with 300 Facebook friends or more exhibit higher levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—than their fewer-(Facebook)-friended counterparts.
The study, completed by researchers at the University of Montreal and the Institut universitaire de santé mentale de Montréal, tested the Facebook habits of a group of 88 participants, all between the ages of 12 and 17. They found that not all behaviors lead to stress. Lead researcher Sonia Lupien explained that they "were able to show that beyond 300 Facebook friends, adolescents showed higher cortisol levels," adding, "we can therefore imagine that those who have 1,000 or 2,000 friends on Facebook may be subjected to even greater stress.”
But some behaviors, the university explained in a statement this week, can have positive health effects:
Teens who act in ways that support their Facebook friends – for example, by liking what they posted or sending them words of encouragement – decreased their levels of cortisol.
Lupien points out that there could be other things affecting teen stress. "Other important external factors are also responsible," she said, but added that "we estimated that the isolated effect of Facebook on cortisol was around eight percent." Cortisol can lead to depression down the line, and high levels can negatively affect people in the short term. Psychology Today explained back in 2013:
Scientists have known for years that elevated cortisol levels: interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, increase weight gain, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease… Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.
Lupien points out that the research into the link between teens social media habits and their health is still in its early stages. "The preliminary nature of our findings will require refined measurement of Facebook behaviors in relation to physiological functioning," she said.
The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.