By Sabrina Almeida
Is it not ironic that a tool meant to make you more social can cause loneliness and depression?
It’s true! And concern about the mental health of avid social media users, particularly teens and young adults, has sparked a host of studies on the subject.
One study on the mood of social media users, conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine last year, showed that the more time young adults spent on social media, the more likely they are to be depressed.
The social media platforms analyzed in the questionnaires given to 1,787 adults in the U.S. between the ages of 19 and 32, included Facebook, YouTube (surprised?), Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn (yes, this too!). The answers were coordinated with a depression assessment tool.
Study findings revealed that more than 25% of the participants were classified as having “high” indicators of depression. Additionally, there were significant associations between social media usage and depression, irrespective of whether usage time was prolonged or frequent.
This is not the only study linking social media usage to depression. Previous research done by the universities of Houston and Michigan came to the same conclusion.
Although “social media depression” may not yet be classified as a mental health condition, researchers and healthcare experts are quite clear about the harm it can cause. And those who insist on going by the book might be surprised to learn that the Pittsburgh research team found frequent use of social media fuels “Internet addiction,” a psychiatric condition that is linked to depression.
So, if your child seems to be sad, withdrawn and continually in a bad mood—ask them to stay off Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and whatever other platforms they use for a couple of days. The same goes for you, if you suddenly find yourself envious of your social circle’s exploits or irritated that you are left out.
Mental health professionals believe that frequent social media usage is typically to fill a void. However, the envy stemming from “social comparison” (which is a psychological phenomenon) lowers self-esteem further and causes depressive symptoms.
How? Mostly because you may feel inadequate when compared to your friends. Considering most posts brag about achievements, lifestyle and relationships, they tend to illicit feelings of inadequacy in individuals who see it as the norm and feel they lead less exciting lives in comparison.
Similarly, not being followed by people you follow, or not receiving positive strokes in the form of likes and flattering comments from your social media circle may also be seen as a form of rejection which can adversely affect your mood and social interactions.
This is particularly worrisome in the teenage years when most boys and girls are struggling to establish a self-identity and measure self-worth through peer approval.
Studies suggest that this so-called rejection can increase social media obsession leading to a vicious circle of social media dependence, negative emotions and depression. Resultant behavior can include trolling to provoke a response or more frequent usage to keep tabs on individuals you have either lost touch or appear to have fallen out of favour with. This shows why users continue to frequent social media platforms irrespective of how terrible it makes them feel.
Of importance is the underlying reason for most of these studies. Researchers are hoping to use their findings to nudge health agencies into recognizing the problem. With young people being its more frequent users, and considering their vulnerability, greater action is required.
What should you do if your child seems overtly troubled by what they see on social media? Encourage them to talk about it. Then try and limit their screen time. Attempt to divert their attention to more positive forms of social interaction like signing up for hobby classes and extra-curricular programs. Or joining a youth club with face-to-face interactions and meaningful activities. Most important—recognize when the obsession and depression is beyond your help and requires professional intervention.
Considering how older adults are becoming almost as social media obsessed as the youth, the best way forward may be to lead by example. Like not constantly looking at your phone to keep up with tweets and posts or even emails.