Millions of social media timelines are full of uplifting images of cute babies and animal videos, happy-go-lucky family updates and exhilaratingly positive news about people’s moods and interactions with friends.
All good then.
Wrong. Far from leaving all the billion-plus users with a warm glow when they come offline from their virtual reality back into the real world, social media, it seems, is leading to a mental health timebomb leaving addicts trapped in an endless cycle of depression.
Because for some, living their lives on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram leaves them feeling inadequate as they compare their ‘dull’ daily routine with that of ‘friends’ in their online community, guilty about the amount of time they are ‘wasting’ online at the expense of forging real relationships and under undue pressure to post amazing updates on a regular basis to compete with others in their circle.
The more time young adults use social media, the more likely they are to be depressed, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
They say social media sites could be fueling ‘Internet addiction,’ a proposed psychiatric condition closely associated with depression.
The research involved 1,787 American adults aged between 19 and 32 and quizzed them about their use of the most popular social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine and LinkedIn.
On average the participants used social media a total of 61 minutes per day and visited various social media accounts 30 times per week.
More than a quarter of the participants were classified as having ‘high’ indicators of depression.
There were significant links between social media use and depression whether social media use was measured in terms of total time spent or frequency of visits.
For example, compared with those who checked least frequently, participants who reported most frequently checking social media throughout the week had 2.7 times the likelihood of depression.
Similarly, compared to peers who spent less time on social media, participants who spent the most total time on social media throughout the day had 1.7 times the risk of depression.
The findings could be used to guide clinical and public health interventions to tackle depression, already identified by the World Health Organisation as the leading form of disability across the globe. Future methods of tackling depression could now include social media tools.
‘Because social media has become such an integrated component of human interaction, it is important for clinicians interacting with young adults to recognize the balance to be struck in encouraging potential positive use, while redirecting from problematic use,’ said Brian Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health.
‘It may be that people who already are depressed are turning to social media to fill a void,’ said said lead author Lui yi Lin of the University of Pittsburgh.
Ms. Lin said exposure to social media also may cause depression, which could then in turn fuel more use of social media.
She warned exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media elicits feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives.
The research also found engaging in activities of little meaning on social media may give a feeling of ‘time wasted’ that negatively influences mood.
It could be fueling ‘Internet addiction,’ a proposed psychiatric condition closely associated with depression.
Spending more time on social media may increase the risk of exposure to cyber-bullying or other similar negative interactions, which can cause feelings of depression, she added.
Lorne Jaffe, 42, a stay-at-home dad from New York who has battled depression for much of his life, blogs about his battles with the condition and recently posted about the negative effects social media can have on him.
‘Last week I fell into panic mode,’ he wrote. ‘It started with intense chest pains each time I logged on to Facebook to check the groups I belong to as well as scroll through my main feed. Each visit became shorter as the physical symptoms of anxiety and depression overwhelmed rational thought. By Tuesday I had a full-blown anxiety attack and needed my mom to watch Sienna lest my little girl see me hysterically crying; screaming, “It’s all crashing down! It’s all crashing down!” while I sat against a wall, head in my hands. What exactly was crashing down is meaningless in hindsight because of the utter absurdity of the thoughts careening through my head: I suck; I’ll never be as good as HIM; I’m a failure; My family would be better off without me; I’ll never be successful enough. I’ve invented enormous expectations for myself thanks to those placed on me as a kid by family and school.’
He felt so bad, he considered quitting Facebook to escape the negativity that engulfed him but rode the storm and decided, instead, to limit his time online and be aware of the physical symptoms before they took hold once again.
‘Just imagine – a huge anxiety attack followed by three days in bed feeling pathetic, insufficient, alienated and even suicidal all because of the thoughts triggered by a social media platform,’ he wrote. ‘That is depression mixed with Facebook.
‘Depression is an isolating disease because you spend your life horrifically alone in your head. Imagine being in a room filled with friends, family and loved ones and still feeling utterly lost and abandoned. Now compound that with staring alone at a screen reading about other people’s lives, hoping and waiting for someone to comment on or like something you wrote. This can trigger a sense of bleakness to the nth degree in a depression sufferer.
‘The people with whom you’re interacting are flesh and blood, but they’re not physically in your presence; online they’re wisps in the wind. If they’re “Facebook Friends” and nothing more, they can be reminders of the lack of closeness in your life –whether real or perceived. My two best friends, for instance, live in Maryland and Florida while I’m in New York. Each time I interact with them on Facebook it’s like a piercing reminder that they live hundreds of miles from me and I’m lucky to see them in person a couple of times a year. When I close the computer I’m almost immediately punched by a deep sadness increasing my loneliness on the friendship front.
‘Depression sufferers almost always play the “comparison game” in almost every form of life. They devote huge amounts of energy in measuring themselves against others and irrationally coming up lacking. It’s an awful form of pessimism, fixation and envy. Combine that with Facebook and this damaging “game” worsens. Such aggrieved people see a friend excitedly announce a new job on Facebook and think, “Why not me? I’m worthless,” and off down the rabbit hole they go. Logically they know all they’re doing is feeding the disease, but this isn’t a rational game.
‘This is the depression aspect that most afflicts me. I log on to Facebook, see that a friend from elementary school’s just bought a new house, look around my small apartment and lament that I have so little financially – this despite knowing I have a beautiful, loving wife, an incredible daughter, and a great deal of caring friends and family. I chastise myself for not having the money to provide my family with a house. I hate myself for not being able to afford the “American Dream.”
‘My thoughts, my unrelenting self-thrashings, happen so quickly that it’s nearly impossible to breathe.
‘Facebook posts never show the full story. That friend who got the new job might have marital issues or suffer severe debt. The friend who bought the new house might be alcoholic or abusive. In my experience, the majority of Facebook users post only things of a positive nature, but a depressed person cannot see this and instead takes everything at face value. If so and so bought a house she must have everything she wants in life. She’s better than me. If so and so got a new job he’s clearly rolling in dough compared to my living check-to-check.He made it. I didn’t.
Depression fills in the blanks with fantasy allowing absurdity to consume truth. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve spent envying friends’ Facebook lives only to find out they’re unhappy beyond the screen. And while these revelations might help get me to see reality initially, depression refuses to lift its boot from my neck. It pushes harder than before forcing me to expend so much energy in reminding myself that what I’m reading or seeing isn’t real that eventually I give out.
‘Like all social media platforms, Facebook is a numbers game. How many friends do you have? How many people commented on your post or picture? How many likes did your video get? If you suffer depression and receive few comments or likes on a picture or post, you’re predisposed to taking it personally – they didn’t like it so they don’t like me. Rarely does it enter the brain that people might not have seen it or are too busy to comment.
‘And even though I know it’s illogical, I have immense trouble stopping my depression from ensnaring me in its massive grip.’
International Life Coach Jayne George: ‘It’s increasingly hard to be yourself. When you post anything, you think of the majority of the people on your page and try to appeal to them, yet people have online friends and connections from different cultures and backgrounds, old school friends, new colleagues, friends from distinct groups and you have to think carefully about what you share with whom.
‘It can be hard for people to stop comparing their apparently dull, routine lives with those of their online friends but a quick reality check reminds us that everyone always posts about the extraordinary events in their lives rather than the mundane everyday things.
‘One inadvertently upsetting feature of social media which can leave people feeling depressed is the huge amount of good cause material shared online. While posting is aimed at raising the profile of these important issues, it can be very distressing to read such sensitive material yet we find ourselves drawn to it and platforms monitor the nature of material you access and put more of the same in front of us.
‘Sometimes we go online for positive relaxation and come away feeling stressed, angry or down so we just need to be aware of our usage and emotions.’
Beth Podmore, a UK image consultant, views her online experiences differently professionally from personally.
‘On a social level I like it as it can keep in touch with friends I don’t get to see often. I like the creative outlet it gives me - it’s a wonderful form of escapism on a dreary day!
‘On a professional level I find it much more challenging - the pressure to keep posting, the pressure to be interesting, the pressure to be relevant to my market and keep them coming back for more.
‘I will sometimes reflect on my day/ mood when I see a picture that gives the impression someone else is having a “great” day...but that’s all it is- an impression - it is no way a certain reality. I do have to check myself when I am with my children that my attention is not taken from them too often or in a negative way due to the fact I am looking at a friend’s holiday pictures on Facebook.’
Some social media platforms already implemented measures aimed at directing people to resources to tackle feelings of stress and depression.
For example, when a person searches the blog site Tumblr for tags indicating references to a mental health crisis—such as ‘depressed,’ ‘suicidal’ or ‘hopeless’—they are redirected to a message that begins with ‘Everything OK?’ and provided with links to helplines and other relevant advice.
Facebook has tested a feature that allows friends to anonymously report worrying posts. The posters would then receive pop-up messages expressing concern and encouraging them to speak with a friend or helpline.
So next time you coo over a cute baby or animal image and click to comment on yet another inspirational!