Source: Carolina Grabowska/Pixabay

The prevailing wisdom often seems to be that being online is bad for us. The Internet has been blamed for the worldwide epidemic of loneliness and depression, for children’s struggles with social skills, and for exacerbating body image issues. The push to ban TikTok and regulate other forms of social media continues, with the goal of ensuring user well-being.

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This is relevant for fans of celebrities and other influencers since most fan interaction occurs online. Fandom is a global phenomenon, with the Internet allowing people who have a passion in common to connect with each other no matter where they’re located. There are fan communities on virtually every online platform, from Facebook to Reddit to Tumblr to YouTube.

People come together online to have a virtual watch party, to debate the merits of a new film, or to decipher the meaning of the lyrics of Taylor Swift’s newest hit—and to find like-minded friends. Online communities are formed and organized in the same way as face-to-face communities and have been shown to have similar characteristics. Fans often make lasting friendships with people who share their enthusiasm, expanding their social network across geographic and cultural boundaries.

The Downside

I have written in the past about how online communities can be good for us, but there are also risks. There does seem to be a benefit of face-to-face interaction, especially in reducing loneliness and enhancing well-being in young people. For fans who can afford it, connecting with other fans in person can be a rewarding and powerful experience, whether it’s going to Comic Con, a Beyonce concert, or just a meet-up of a few people at a local coffee shop.

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For many fans, however, in-person interactions with fellow fans are not feasible either economically, geographically, or physically. That leaves online interaction, but is spending more time online risking well-being?

According to the U.S. Surgeon General and data from the Pew Research Center, some studies have found a link between social media use and mental health issues. A longitudinal study of adolescents found that spending more than three hours a day on social media increased the risk of anxiety and depression, and a third of young adolescents said they felt “addicted” to social media. Several studies have found that for young adults who are depressed, limiting social media use can improve self-reported symptoms, and correlational studies have suggested an association between social media use, body image problems, and cyberbullying.

New Research Findings

However, a study published in 2024 has come to some more positive conclusions. The researchers point out that results from earlier research have been mixed and criticized for problems with how they were conducted and with whom. Many focused only on young people instead of extending across the age range, were relatively short-term, and were conducted in a limited geographical range. This large-scale study, conducted over a longer period of time and with a broader geographic scope, attempted to correct for those methodological concerns, with surprising results.

The researchers surveyed more than 2.4 million people and found that being on the Internet is not related to increases in depression or anxiety. In fact, being online can indeed have some positive effects. This study was not only larger than most, but it also included a wider geographical range of participants instead of focusing only on the English-speaking countries that are often used in research, surveying people across 168 countries.

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In addition, the study collected data over a span of 16 years. After controlling for income, employment status, education, and health issues, the researchers found that people who were able to access the Internet scored higher on life satisfaction, had more positive and meaningful experiences and fewer negative ones, and were more content with their social lives. In other words, Internet use positively predicted well-being. The differences were small but significant.

While the researchers cautioned that the study wasn’t designed to look at whether any aspects of social media use can be harmful, overall, there were more positive effects than negative. (Late adolescent and young adult women who used the Internet did show lower levels of community well-being—they were less happy with where they lived, perhaps leading to more Internet use!)

Social Media Essential Reads

Other recent studies have also found that anxiety and depression are not related to time online. A longitudinal study of almost 600 adolescents found that online use, specifically social media use by young people, does not predict greater depression. The reverse is sometimes true; depression in adolescent girls does predict slightly more social media use. Another eight-year longitudinal study found that time spent using social media was not related to changes in depression or anxiety for adolescent boys and girls.

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The most recent U.S. Surgeon General report also included Pew Research Center findings that the majority of adolescents and young adults report feeling more connected to their friends through social media, and almost three-quarters of individuals said they feel like social media platforms give them a place where they can show their creative side, nurturing self-expression. Internet use also increases a sense of belonging and helps people find a community in which they feel understood. Most fans would likely not find that surprising.

It’s All About the Balance

So, what’s the verdict? The 2024 update on the pros and cons of the Internet suggests that for most fans, the sense of community they’ve found in online spaces is a good thing. But even a good thing is no longer beneficial if it’s excessive. If Internet use gets in the way of other personal connections, interferes with getting enough sleep, or negatively impacts academic or job performance, that outweighs the benefits. If fans feel like they can’t walk away and take a break even when they want to, that’s a problem.

So, should fans worry about how much they value their so-called “pocket friends”? Like most things in our lives, the Internet offers both risks and benefits. Online fandom can be a way of staying connected and feeling supported, bringing fans together to celebrate what they love, but the benefits are more likely if individuals are thoughtful about their internet use. There are ways to keep online interactions something positive and beneficial.

Fans can create healthy boundaries to balance their online and offline activities, nurturing both their in-person and virtual connections. If time on Instagram makes you late for work, leaves you falling asleep at your desk, or leads to your partner feeling ignored, that’s a sign that the balance isn’t where it should be.

Being proactive about curating your online experience is the best way to ensure it’s enriching your life. Increasing media literacy to be knowledgeable about how to tell the difference between opinion and fact online is crucial, including how images are created and portrayed, especially in the age of AI.

If time online leaves you feeling bad about yourself or more anxious than you were before, that’s a sign that the community or platform you’re on may not be beneficial. We all have the power to select the virtual communities we participate in and, to some extent, impact the norms of those fandom communities. Not participating in or accepting cyberbullying or harassment can go a long way to keeping online fandom healthy.

Being thoughtful about when and how you use the Internet can ensure that the benefits outweigh the risks for fans and everyone else.

References

Coyne, S.M., Rogers, A.A., Zurcher, J.D., Stockdale, L. & Booth, M. (2020). Does time spent using social media impact mental health? An eight year longitudinal study. Computers In Human Behavior, 104.

Heffer, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (2019). The Longitudinal Association Between Social-Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among Adolescents and Young Adults. Clinical Psychological Science, 7(3), 462-470.

https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/04/24/teens-and-social-media-key-findings-from-pew-research-center-surveys/

Vuorre, M., & Przybylski, A. K. (2024). A Multiverse Analysis of the Associations Between Internet Use and Well-Being. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 5(2).

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