A Q&A with the student researcher covering his work on the relationship between social media, anxiety, and body image.
By Laura Maranta
A graduate of OCOB’s undergraduate and graduate programs, Jack Keefer is currently a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara and an experienced economics student researcher. Recently, he joined Cal Poly Economics professor Dr. Jaqueline Doremus in a follow-up study to his senior project. The study is novel in providing evidence that body image is a mechanism for the relationship between social media and anxiety and depression. While the study participants were high schoolers, it is very clear that the results apply to social media users of all ages.
Keefer represented Cal Poly at the statewide virtual CSU research competition on May 1 in the Behavioral and Social Sciences category and placed second in a highly competitive field. He presented the findings of this research to a panel of professional experts from major corporations, foundations, public agencies, and universities in California.
We followed up with him to discuss this research, its implications, and what he plans to do next.
Can you give us a brief overview of your work?
I did my senior project looking at the effects of social media on anxiety and depression. We did a small survey at a high school and we were able to get some preliminary results. Some of the results looked promising so, the next year, we decided to make it bigger and better. That’s when Dr. Doremus and I teamed up to work on a survey asking further questions. There are questions asking high schoolers about anxiety and depression, lifestyle and time-use. The questions on areas such as exercise, sleep, socializing, and time with family were one of the primary features of the study. Participants were also asked about demographics such as race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and about their parents. All these different things might affect anxiety or depression or mood disorders. We also asked them about body image and if they’ve been bullied. This gave us a really nice set of controls. We gathered all this data at four high schools and got about 2,400 respondents. The surveys were given out by the high schools themselves and they gave us the anonymized data. What we found is that there was a heterogeneous effect. Kids that were using high amounts of social media had higher amounts of anxiety and depression and body image issues. The effects of body image issues were different for male and female students, which was interesting. Our core question ended up being whether social media and its impact on anxiety and depression went through body image as a mediator or mechanism. Our study provides evidence that body image is a mediator for the impact of anxiety and depression for female students and our study is unique to show evidence for that relationship, which is a relationship that hasn’t been looked at in the past.
How did you start researching this topic?
The opportunity presented itself, actually. I have a lot of interest in applied microeconomics, which often uses empirical techniques to look at questions which may or may not be traditionally economic questions but may have economic implications. As a result, I’m interested in a whole range of topics, and this is one of them. We know some of our students are anxious, depressed, or have a negative body image, resulting in major impacts on our society which are relevant to economics. I was really given the opportunity by the school district I was working with to run a survey like this and they were interested in the results. The opportunity was available to me, and I thought it was interesting so I went with it.
What advice would you give people at any age regarding your findings on social media and mental health?
From our findings as well as some findings in the literature, generally, we should be really cognizant of what we are doing on social media. Looking at attractive people on social media, for example, does seem to have higher effects on body image and mood than simply spending time consuming other forms of content. I would say it would be really important if you’re someone who uses a lot of social media to be really aware of what you’re consuming. Often what you’re consuming isn’t always realistic. The big takeaway is to remind yourself that you do have worth and social media gives an artificial image of reality that can mess with your mental health.
“What we found there was a heterogeneous effect. Kids who were using high amounts of social media had higher amounts of anxiety and depression and body image issues.”
Has this study had an impact on your own social media habits?
I feel like as I’ve gotten older I use less social media. I do think there is value to social media, however. I personally don’t use it a lot but I don’t know what’s happening in my friends’ and families’ lives when I don’t see them, which, especially during COVID, is really detrimental. Other studies have found, too, that there are costs with social media. If people do spend all their time on it, it can kind of get in the way of other things they have going on in their lives, including creating a sense that you have relationships, when the brain doesn’t really see them that way because interpersonal relationships are more than just texting. I think the big takeaway is that social media isn’t inherently bad, but it also has repercussions like every technology ever invented. We need to be aware to educate our children and create good policy to deal with these new platforms as society in the right way.
How do you think this research interacts with the amount of time we are spending on our phones during COVID-19?
From a researcher’s perspective, I have no idea. But from an everyday perspective, I think generally the finding is people are on their phones more, without being super precise. There’s one sense where it pushes us to use more social media because we aren’t in person but we aren’t offsetting it with real life counterbalances. Then, we feel like we have these real relationships but social media relationships aren’t real relationships. We do need to be careful with social media during this time because we use more of it and its effects are going to be amplified. My findings are limited to before COVID. This is kind of my speculation, based on what we’ve found and also what I’ve read in other studies.
You recently represented Cal Poly at the statewide CSU research competition. What was that opportunity like?
The presentation seemed to go really well. It was a great opportunity to be there. It’s a really proud moment when you can represent your alma mater. I was pretty excited to go do that at the statewide level. It really affirms a lot of the work that Dr. Doremus and I were able to do and reaffirms that the research we are doing is valuable. It was exciting to be able to meet other researchers and have the experience of being in a competition like this because I hope to be doing research like this for the rest of my career.
“The big takeaway for me is to remind yourself that you do have worth and social media gives an artificial image of reality that can mess with your mental health.”
What are your future research plans?
We had some other plans for this study and then COVID happened and all that fell through. We would love to do a form of this study that is randomized or has some form of exogenous variation. If we don’t do that, I’m open to doing research all over the place. I’ll probably move on to other subjects which may or may not have anything to do with mental health because a lot of economics studies a component of human behavior.
What’s your advice for any Cal Poly students who want to get involved with research?
Your professors are your absolute greatest resource, especially, in my opinion, in the Economics Department. We have a lot of very talented researchers, who were some of the best researchers in their PhD class when they were at some of the best schools in the world and I think we take that for granted. I had the honor of working closely with Dr. Doremus, as well as Dr. [Carlos] Flores. I think a second piece of advice is to take classes in statistics and practical fields. You kind of have to go further than just the standard undergraduate curriculum and add some statistics classes to your electives. These classes help you in doing the actual analysis. A third practical piece of advice beyond the undergrad level but for research generally, is every time you have a question about the world, write it down. The hardest part of doing your senior project or master’s capstone or thesis is thinking of the question you want to ask, and finding a question that is a really good research question. When you have pages of questions, you can pick one, and hopefully one of those questions has some data or evidence you can find for or against your hypothesis.