Q: I would describe myself as a reasonably happy and very active user of social media. I have read a few articles that suggest too much social media use can lead to depression. Is that something I should be worried about?
A: A few things to mention before I address your question:
· I am not a medical professional or mental health expert.
· My response will be opinion based on research readily available to the general public.
· I am actually really happy people are asking these types of questions.
My first two points are self-explanatory, but to add detail to the third, I am encouraged by the fact that people, whether in casual conversation, online, or through larger media outlets are lifting the stigma around discussing mental health. If it becomes easier to discuss, people are more likely to seek treatment and encourage others to do so.
Keeping the above disclaimers in mind, there are many studies that have found links between social media activity and depression. The ambiguity of these studies lies in the fact that correlation doesn’t necessarily give us clear indicators of causation (bit.ly/2AQ1tm3).
Is it that social media use can lead to depression or is it that depressed people are more likely to be active on social media? Unfortunately, studies up until this point are inconclusive around these points. There are, however, some logical theories that one may discern from data that has been collected on this topic.
Is social media causing depression?
This angle could be possible, as many display the best version or a romanticized version of themselves and their lives on social media. People may feel the need to measure up and have increased pressure to live a life that is unattainable based on the images and snippets their online friends and communities are advertising. This phenomenon is similar to the discussion around traditional media’s representation of female beauty and use of Photoshop and the underlying affects it has on self-esteem (bit.ly/2lgMoT3).
Also, the “distance” that social media provides creates a space where users feel empowered to speak in ways that they would most likely not do in person. While this could be empowering, it can also lead to cyber-bullying, dissemination of hate speech, and other communication meant to elicit negative feelings and responses from other users.
Are depressed people more likely to use social media?
Based on behaviors and feelings typical in those suffering with depression, social media use could be a logical fit. Depressed people tend to isolate themselves and social media use allows them to step away from interactions in the physical world and interact from a distance or control how they engage with others in a way that traditional relationships cannot be managed.
It is also theorized that if someone is already experiencing depressive thoughts or feelings, engaging on social media could create a cyclical effect of reinforcing those feelings, thus causing them to engage more on social media, looking for support and validation (bit.ly/2qAXcNn).
So why is the information out there inconclusive and conflicting?
This is the result of a couple of factors. In the grand scheme of innovation and tech creation, social media is still in its infancy, or perhaps its toddler stage. It’s constantly changing, learning new things, making mistakes, and enticing people to engage because it’s so darn cute.
Also, much of the data in this type of research relies on self-reporting by the subjects involved, which is an inexact form of data collection, creating a multitude of variables that need to be considered. Lastly, there is also a lot of research that points to some of the positive effects of engagement and support via social media and internet use, which can further confuse the findings in this area of research.
Just as with any other disease, depression has symptoms that may be common among sufferers but each person’s actual experience is different. Here is an interesting read from someone who suffers with depression and speaks to his complex relationship with the disease and social media: bbc.in/2EAukP3.
It is accounts like those and questions like yours that help normalize the discussion of mental health and treatment.