Does Social Media Cause Depression?
One of the biggest differences in the lives of current teenagers and young adults, compared to earlier generations, is that they spend much less time connecting with their peers in person and more time connecting electronically, principally through social media. Some experts see the rise in depression as evidence that the connections social media users form electronically are less emotionally satisfying, leaving them feeling socially isolated.
Indeed, one exception to the depression correlation is girls who are high users of social media but also keep up a high level of face-to-face social interaction. The Twenge study showed that those girls who interact intensely offline as well as through social media don’t show the increase in depressive symptoms that those who interact less in person do.
And there are some teenagers who aren’t successful in connecting with peers offline because they are isolated geographically or don’t feel accepted in their schools and local communities. For those kids, an electronic connection can be lifesaving.
By some estimates, roughly 4 billion people across the world use networking websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This usage has prompted mental health experts to investigate whether the enormous popularity of social media plays a role in depression.
Research suggests that people who limit their time on social media tend to be happier than those who don’t. Studies also indicate that social media may trigger an array of negative emotions in users that contribute to or worsen their depression symptoms.
Despite the popularity of social media platforms and the rapidity with which they’ve inserted themselves into nearly all facets of our lives, there’s a remarkable lack of clear data about how they affect us personally: our behaviours, our social relationships, and our mental health. In many cases, the information that’s available isn’t pretty.
Studies have linked the use of social media to depression, anxiety, poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem, inattention, and hyperactivity — often in teens and adolescents. The list goes on. However, these studies are almost entirely of an observational or correlational nature, meaning they don’t establish whether or not one is causing the other. A common argument against the theory that social media makes individuals more depressed and lonely is simply that perhaps those who are more depressed and lonely are more inclined to use social media as a way of reaching out.
What Is Depression?
In a simplified way, depression is defined as a persistent mood disorder that affects a person's thinking, feeling, and mood, causing them to experience persistent sadness, irritability, tiredness, and/or poor concentration. People with depression can also experience fatigue, oversleeping, and trouble concentrating.
Depression is one of the most common mental health problems among teenagers and young adults. The CDC estimates that 12 percent of 12- to 18-year-olds in the US have a depressive disorder, although the number may be as high as 17 percent. The link between social media and depression is hard to quantify. Some studies have reported that the rise in depression has coincided with increased social media use.
Depression is a common and treatable mental health condition. It can occur along with or even in the aftermath of other disorders, such as chronic pain, alcohol or drug abuse, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia. Over the years, there have been numerous studies examining the link between social media and depression.
These studies are not perfect and cannot prove a cause-and-effect relationship between social media use and depression, but they have shown some intriguing connections. Some of the studies on the subject suggest that the more time young people spend using social media, the more likely they are to be depressed. But there are other studies that indicate that social media use is associated with better psychological well-being.
The Rise Of Depression
Today's young people are exposed to a vast array of information and entertainment through social media and the Internet. These new ways to be socially connected, on a scale never seen before, seem to be replacing face-to-face interaction and creating a gap in young people's lives that can create depression.
One study found that teens' time on Facebook actually decreased in 2012, which is contrary to a long-established notion that time spent on social media increases as one gets older. Another study showed that while teens' use of social media had risen dramatically between 2006 and 2010, the use of Facebook had dropped by 40 percent from 2011 to 2012. The problem isn't specific to one social media platform, but all social media.
As a professor of psychiatry, I can say from my own research that there is some evidence for this claim. And I also would like to emphasize that, to date, there is no clear cause-and-effect relationship between social media use and depression. Although there are several studies linking the two, they do not all show a consistent pattern of connection.
Some argue that Facebook is to blame for the increase in the number of depressed young people. In a highly controversial study, Norwegian scientists looked at teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18 who had taken a Facebook quiz and then compared their results with those who hadn't taken the quiz. Their goal was to see if Facebook had a mental health impact.
What Is Social Media?
Social media platforms are designed to let people communicate with one another in a multitude of ways. People can communicate through posts on online message boards, Twitter feeds, YouTube videos, Facebook messages, Instagram photos, and other means.
“People need to realize that when they are interacting with strangers, there's a lack of emotional support,” says Susan Greany, Ph.D., PsyD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Depression Cure. “They also need to realize that being alone with their thoughts can trigger depression. On top of that, there's also a lot of risk-taking that could be overwhelming for some people.
Social media is a wide variety of online and mobile services that allow people to connect with others who share their interests, expertise or interests. The term “social media” is used to refer to the number of people using each social media site. Facebook is a popular social media site with over 800 million active users.
Twitter has over 310 million users. Rising rates of teen depression should raise a concern about this. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five young adults between the ages of 13 and 24 years old reported having no one they could talk to about their mental health problems. That's a higher percentage than ever before.
How Is Social Media Affecting My Mental Health?
The most critical thing to understand about social media is that it is a powerful driver of motivation, entertainment, information, and social interaction. To see how it affects your mental health, consider these three questions: Is your social media activity positive or negative? Is your use productive or unproductive? Does your use of social media make you happy or sad? Social media is a powerful driver of motivation, entertainment, information, and social interaction.
No one knows for sure how much social media is contributing to our collective depression epidemic, but here’s what we do know. One study found that 87% of teenagers felt they were “too online” and that the majority of teens expressed a desire to be less connected to their phones. Another study of young adults found that almost half had symptoms of depression, even though only 25% of those surveyed actually had social media accounts.
Other studies suggest that constant social media use can contribute to a loss of face-to-face social skills and a sense of alienation. And according to a report by Public Health England, teenagers who use social media for 10 hours or more a week are twice as likely to be depressed than those who use social media less frequently.
“Social media could, for example, have created a condition known as FOMO—fear of missing out. The feeling of not having enough friends and the potential for new friends to appear, even if they are not real, could lead to people comparing themselves to others,” says Logan MacDuffee, a former digital journalist who runs Avoca, a digital media training company.
“Add to that the expectation of receiving likes on one's posts, and teens have far more of an incentive to go online to get more likes than they would just to make connections with their friends.” A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that teenagers who spend more time on social media tend to be unhappier and less popular.
Social Media And Depression
Although we can't know for sure whether social media is causing mental health issues, there is enough evidence to suggest a link. As with most things, “there's an urban myth and a truth,” says Aric Prather, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University, and the director of the division of emerging diseases and mental health at the university's division of epidemiology and biostatistics. “There is actually a connection between social media use and decreased well-being.” The finding has been supported by two longitudinal studies.
Some research suggests that the average teenager now spends more than three hours per day on electronic devices, including phones, computers, tablets, and televisions, not including time spent texting and emailing. Teenagers have a natural tendency to want to spend time interacting with others face-to-face, especially in the face of negative emotions such as depression, and research suggests that it is the discrepancy between face-to-face interaction and screen-based interaction, rather than the social media activity itself, that is associated with higher depression risk.
A recent study analyzed how “social network support systems” from social media, such as Facebook, are linked to depression and anxiety. In the study, 63% of teens who used Facebook said that they had felt anxious or depressed since the start of the year.
However, the amount of time young people spend using Facebook and other social media platforms has significantly increased since 2011. In 2011, 9% of U.S. teens said that they had spent more than an hour a day on social media platforms. In 2015, this had increased to 18%. More than three-quarters of teens who said they had experienced at least one anxiety or depressive symptom in the past month (76%) said that they had used at least one social media platform in the past 30 days.
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Does Social Media Cause Depression?
Social media does appear to contribute to some of the body’s chemical processes that influence mood and behaviour, but not all. Because most of the brain’s connections are formed during early childhood and adolescence, it’s hard to isolate how the computer and the internet are changing the developing brain and if the impact will last.
“It is difficult to draw a direct line between a one-time exposure to social media and depression,” says Dr. Vincent Larochelle, an associate professor of psychiatry at McGill University and member of the executive committee of the World Psychiatric Association. However, the good news is that social media also brings real benefits.
Why do people, particularly teenagers, feel sad or depressed when they can’t “keep up” with others? Why do they take to their computers to express their emotions? The authors of this study were interested in finding out whether a person’s use of social media (specifically Facebook) might play a role in contributing to the development of depression.
They found a link between depression and a person’s use of Facebook, particularly in the case of teenagers. Most people, particularly teenagers, spend the majority of their time communicating via social media. It is therefore unsurprising that there might be an association between the number of friends and posts a person has, and the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.
The popular explanation for this development is that, as social media eliminates real social connections, it becomes necessary to seek out emotional support from virtual relationships. Such social media interactions have been found to create a feeling of community, which can help to soothe feelings of loneliness.
The problem with this explanation is that people may not be able to maintain relationships of that kind and still be able to socialize with their friends face to face. Nor can virtual relationships replace the solidity of friendship and support that, in the past, has helped to protect people from the development of depression. Some experts also point out that there are practical barriers to these kinds of social interactions.
How To Combat Depression From Social Media?
The good news is that simply turning off your social media habit, or at least reducing your time on your phone, can help. Setting time limits is one effective way of breaking up that fast-paced media stream and forcing yourself to take a breather. Another helpful technique is to spend some time in a public place where you aren’t tempted to look at social media — such as a café or an outdoor walk — to help you decompress.
You may also find some distractions on the Internet, such as viewing funny videos or chatting with a friend, can be helpful. What are the mental health risks of using social media? A growing body of research suggests that using social media can have a negative effect on people’s well-being.
Protect your children from depression by encouraging them to spend time with other people. Turn off the television, social media and cell phones and focus on what's happening in your kids' lives – because, in the end, it's what they do that matters most. Try to get your kids to learn skills that will keep them from resorting to social media for emotional support and ways to cope with stress.
Also, talk about the risks of developing anxiety and depression and provide ways to handle these conditions. U.S. News & World Report's panel of experts include psychiatrist Eric Topol, a professor of genomics at the Scripps Research Institute; Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Steven Pinker; clinical psychologist Alison Edelman, and psychiatrist Christine Biederman.
According to a study published in 2015, “traditional” face-to-face communication does not necessarily keep people happy, but that social media does. The researchers behind the study examined the self-reported responses of more than 6,700 adults who received a survey about their own online use between 2005 and 2010.
Those who reported that they had more Facebook friends, followed more closely by Twitter users, reported being happier. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking concluded that when the main online activity of individuals concerned Facebook, they were happier, more sociable and less depressed.
Depression Risk Rises From Too Much Social Media
A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than three-quarters of young people aged 13 to 17 admitted to regularly using social media. These researchers, led by Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, found that teens who spent three or more hours a day on social media were more likely to have two of the following symptoms of depression:
- a loss of interest in hobbies or recreation
- diminished mood,
- fatigue, or
- sleep problems.
Twenge and her colleagues looked at depression scores for 10,136 teens, collected in annual national surveys for the National Center for Health Statistics.
This would suggest that social media may be adding to the number of teenagers who are feeling depressed. An Australian study, reported on in The Guardian, took a big sample of 5,000 young adults and found that those who felt socially isolated used Facebook the most, but they also were more likely to be depressed.
As you might expect, this association was strongest for older teenagers, but it was still present for 15- to 19-year-olds. Social media can help young people feel less isolated by connecting them with others in similar situations. But it's not clear if the reasons teenagers spend more time on social media may actually lead to more feelings of social isolation in the long run.
Lack Of Human Interaction
A longitudinal study from the University of Michigan (UBOCRAST) found that adolescents who spent most of their free time online and those who spend most of their time hanging out with their peers do not differ in terms of self-reports of depression.
In contrast, the UBOCRAST study also found that adolescents who spent more time interacting with family members or friends and less time interacting with online social media users did tend to experience more depressive symptoms. Teens and their parents can take measures to combat the tendency for social media use to leave them feeling socially isolated, such as limiting the amount of time they spend online, but also in talking to their teens about social media usage and their mental health.
“This social isolation leads to isolation, which can impact your overall mental health,” said Shirley Pagano, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northvale, N.J. “Doing things in person, such as going out with friends, attending sports games, playing games at a card table or board game, is linked to feeling better emotionally, physically, and mentally.
In addition, connecting with someone face-to-face can be hard to do in the face of technology.” Psychologists know that depression can develop in teens and young adults, and signs of depression may be difficult to recognize without more information. Many young people may experience occasional irritability or sadness, but not depression.
Overall, mental health issues, particularly those of depression, tend to be most common in middle-aged adults. This is partly because we age, but there are also things we can do to improve our mental health as we age. Not all of them are about preventing problems. Some are about knowing what to do when they occur.
Few studies have been conducted to determine whether social media, in particular Facebook, are contributing to more depression and other mental illnesses among teens. A 2017 meta-analysis found that social media use is associated with greater social isolation and lower self-esteem.
However, that analysis focused on a single website and Facebook was not the only social media platform children used. Although Facebook has the highest number of active users, most social media platforms have millions of active users, and teens and young adults spend less time on Facebook than other social media platforms.
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