“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” While you might have shouted that to repel taunts as a kid, even while you were saying it, you knew that words can hurt. That’s even more true now that we have social media. In fact, research is starting to confirm just how deeply negative posts and tweets, cyberbullying and even just being “unfriended” can hurt—and the upshot is, the result can be serious mental health problems.

For one new study, researchers from University of West Virginia and University of Pittsburgh surveyed more than 1,000 students between the ages of 18 and 30. The students were asked to report on their recent experiences on social media, both positive and negative, and they also filled out a questionnaire to measure symptoms of depression. Key findings…

  • For every 10% increase in the number of positive social media experiences reported, the likelihood of having symptoms of depression was 4% lower.
  • For every 10% increase in the number of negative social media experiences reported, the likelihood of having symptoms of depression was 20% higher.
  • Women seemed to be more susceptible to negative experiences. They were 50% more likely to have symptoms of depression than male students.

These findings are in tune with previous studies that didn’t involve social media but looked at other sorts of positive and negative experiences—and found that negative experiences have more of an impact on mental health than positive experiences, especially for young adults. The researchers did comment that this study was observational only, meaning it can’t be concluded that social media caused the greater incidence of depression. They also acknowledged that people who are already depressed may be prone to focusing on negativity—they may seek out or disproportionately generate negative social media experiences, so the link could go both ways.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their ilk are great tools in many ways, bBut they can be used for good or ill. Young adults, for whom depression is a leading cause of disability, are especially vulnerable to their negative impact. If you use social media, be aware that any of your words and actions might affect the recipient more deeply and harshly than you realize. And if you’re on the receiving end of any negative posts, tweets, unfriending, etc., give some thought to the impact on your mental health…and take seriously any signs of depression.