Does social media cause depression?

Despite being a complete social media addict (sigh), I’ve written repeatedly about the negative impacts that social media can have on your mental health. However, one of the key, unanswered questions has always been this: Is the relationship casual? That is, does social media use cause loneliness, does loneliness cause an increase in social media use, or is a third item related to both?

New research indicates that the relationship IS casual: Social media use does, in fact, make you more lonely.

This comes from a new study, courtesy of Melissa Hunt, the associate director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department.

In her study, Hunt took two groups of college students. In the first, students were asked to use social media as they usually did (about an hour a day). The second group was asked to limit it’s social media use to ten minutes per site.

The results, per Hunt: “The main finding of the paper is that limiting your use of Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram to 30 minutes total or less per day results in reductions in depression and loneliness, especially for people who were moderately depressed to start with.”

Yikes.

Yikes yikes yikes.

This is the first study, to my knowledge, which directly shows that social media is a CAUSE of depression, not just correlated with it. However, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by this. We know that excessive use of social media can create a variety of negative impacts on someone’s life, including cyberbullying, negative body image and more. However, this is the first time that there has been a direct casual link established between depression and social media.

What do we do? Well, that’s easy: Use social media less. Seriously. It’s good for you to do that anyway, even if this study isn’t accurate (though I intuitively think it is).

More research is needed, but I firmly believe that this study will be the first of many, many which show the devastating impacts which social media is having on our society and our culture. And it’s hard for me to say: Like many of you, I find myself completely addicted to social media. But it’s an addiction which needs to break.

 

Using Facebook to diagnosis depression

I came across this article in Medical News Today, which reviews a study done in the medical journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To make a long story short, the study reviews Facebook data and medical records, analyzing information posted by the more than 100 people who had been diagnosed with depression.

While there is ample evidence that social media can be a cause of depression (I have written about the topic before), this is the first time that I have ever seen published information which notes that social media can be used as a diagnosis tool for depression. That has some pretty interesting implications.

First, the study itself. Here’s one of the most important parts:

The scientists fed the information into an algorithm. In total, Eichstaedt [author of teh study] and colleagues analyzed 524,292 Facebook status updates from both people who had a history of depression and from those who did not.

By modeling conversations on 200 topics, the researchers determined a range of so-called depression-associated language markers, which depicted emotional and cognitive cues, including “sadness, loneliness, hostility, rumination, and increased self-reference” — that is an increased use of first-person pronouns, such as “I” or “me.”

The researchers found that the linguistic markers could predict depression with “significant” accuracy up to 3 months before the person receives a formal diagnosis.

Here’s a look at what words can be used to predict depression (none of this will be a surprise):

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Also notable is that more self-referential language is found more often in people with depression. That’s not really a surprise, as depression and narcissism are often linked.

To be perfectly honest, none of the above should be very surprising. Extended use of terms that indicate pain, distress or rumination would obviously indicate someone who is in a crisis. What is interesting, however, is that you can actually use these terms on social media to predictably and reliably diagnosis depression. That, to me, is fascinating. It is yet another tool in the toolbox for diagnosis depression, and as numerous studies have shown, depression remains massively under diagnosed, with some estimates showing that up to 2/3 of all individuals with depression are undiagnosed.

Three ways social media can be good for your mental health…I guess….

Despite my own personal obsession with social media, I have written repeatedly about how bad it can be for your mental health. That being said, I remembered something the other day: Social media changed my life in a very important way. It was through someone else’s stupidity, but that still counts!

Allow me to refer to a blog entry last week:

Let me go backwards. Robin Williams completed suicide on August 11, 2014. He had long suffered from a slew of mental health challenges, including depression and substance abuse. However, Williams was suffering from “diffuse Lewy body dementia,”which ultimately contributed heavily to his suicide.

William’s suicide ultimately inspired me to go public with my story. That started when some idiot on Facebook decided to spout off shortly after Williams’ death by saying something along the lines of, “So sad Robin Williams committed suicide. He just needed to pray to Jesus more!”

No, you schmuck, that’s not how it works, and that ignorant comment got me so damn fired up that I wrote an op-ed in my local paper, detailing my own struggles with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. That, in turn, set my career in motion in a very different way, making me become much louder about mental health issues. I’ve spoken at events detailing my own struggles, cofounded a mental health caucus, appeared in PSAs and introduced legislation designed to help those who are suffering from mental health challenges. I know that the work I’ve done in this realm has helped people – and I know I have a lot more to do to help more.

As much as I hate to admit it, while thinking of this moment the other day, I realized something: It happened because I was on Facebook at that one specific moment. If I hadn’t been, I would never have had this very positive, life-changing experience. My life would be dramatically worse.

So, even I must admit: Social media can be good for your mental health.

How else can it be helpful? Here’s a few thoughts, but with an important caveat: It all depends on the users. Social media can be good for your mental health, but that only occurs if you are willing to approach it from a certain perspective and/or change your way of thinking.

1) Social support: I firmly believe that social media cannot replace real-world interactions – but that’s not to say that they don’t have a place. Social media can help people feel connected to each other if people join supportive groups, develop healthy relationships and give as much as they take over the course of regular conversations. It can also make it easier to discuss important problems:

A common dilemma among people with mental illness (including depression) is the reluctance to talk to people closest to them about their problems. More and more young people are turning to the Internet for health advice, including topics such as contraception, acne treatments, etc. Far from being a singularly-destructive force in their development, social media can, in fact, do quite the opposite.

This is the opposite of the unrealistic expectations that haunt so many on social media. Instead of making people feel more isolated, it makes them feel more connected – and less alone.

2) You can get closer and learn more about people you’re already friends with: My wife and I have a running joke that, whenever we go to a public event, someone will say something to me about my most recent Facebook post. I try to return the favor whenever possible. Social media – when used to strengthen real world relationships – can be very helpful.

3) You can actually learn something: We’ve all seen it – the political conversation that isn’t really so much a “conversation” as it is “two idiots yelling at each other and accomplishing nothing other than polluting your Facebook wall with their mind garbage.” Social media isn’t always the most conductive place to have a political conversation – but, imagine, for a moment, that you approach a political debate with a different perspective. A willingness to listen and to learn. It is possible to actually learn something from social media debates if you can change your mindset and approach these conversations with an open mind. Maybe you won’t be convinced of someone else’s viewpoint, but hopefully, at least, you can better understand their perspective, and that’s exceptionally important in today’s fragmented society.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. What am I missing here? Let us know in the comments!

A presentation: Social Media & Depression

I had the pleasure of giving a presentation on Social Media & Depression for the Interlace Cultural y Desarollo Integral Mexicano de Lehigh Valley, a Mexican cultural group in my hometown. In the presentation, I talk about the frighteningly strong connections between Social Media & Depression.

The actual presentation is below. But here are the highlights:

  • As you can imagine, social media and teenagers and incredibly linked.
  • The networks that teenagers use are constantly changing, but at the moment, Snapchat and Instagram are the preferred networks.
  • The Hispanic community, as a whole, is overrepresentated on social media compared to other demographics.
  • Social media does make people depressed and social media use is correlated with higher levels of depression.
  • Social media depression can be combated by a change of mindset and by primarily remembering this: Social media is not the real world.

The Mental Health Danger of Instagram

I’m a weeeeeeee bit obsessed with social media – though I like to think I don’t let it distract from my life too much – but that’s another story.  Anyway, I’m an old fart when it comes to this universe (at 34, I’m practically ancient), and my social media activity has been primarily confined to Facebook and Twitter.  Recently, I finally surrendered and started using Instagram more.  I’m enjoying it – and I hope I’m able to keep it in perspective.

I think there is a huge danger with Instagram: If you lose sight of what it really means, it can be really bad for your mental health.  I’ve written before about how dangerous social media can be for your mental health, but Instagram is the absolute worst.  That’s because it forces you to make unrealistic comparisons about your life to others, provides a mere allusion of connectivity (it’s no substitute for the real thing) and can make people feel more depressed.

Almost immediately, I found myself falling into this trap.  The recent pictures I uploaded: Me at work in Harrisburg, a awesome ice cream sundae, my son and my dog, etc.  Don’t I just have the perfect life? Things not uploaded: Me getting very upset about recent allegations of rape against a colleague.  My living room being so messy that I thought a small bomb of dog fur and toys had exploded in it.  Me wondering how on earth I would ever pay off my college loans.

And that, in a nutshell, is exactly the problem with social media.  I’m very lucky – I have a wonderful life – but it’s not without its problems.  And, if you believe most people’s social media, you would be convinced that everyone else is having more fun, success, happiness and love than you.  That’s because all of us forget this fundamental truth: Just about everyone uses social media to highlight the best in their life, not the worst.

Despite it, I do love social media.  It gives me a chance to communicate with people who I love – and, in my case, who I represent – about what is happening in my life.  I’d encourage everyone who uses social media actively to remember this critical fact: It’s not reality, just a highly curated version of it.  Everyone uses it to show off the best, ideal version of themselves.  Instagram is particularly dangerous at this because we all love pretty pictures and soft filters that make it seem like our lives are perfect.

If you can keep this in mind when you use social media, you’ll be okay.

Facebook to enhance efforts to stop suicide

I’ve written before about how bad social media can be for your health.  It can be terrible for anyone, but particularly young people.  Unfortunately, there is research which shows that social media may be contributing to a rise in teenage suicides, and that it is almost  certainly contributing to increased depression and anxiety among teenagers.  Those findings are even stronger for woman then men, and teenage women have also seen a higher increase in teenage suicide (please keep in mind, correlation does not equal causation).

There’s some good news on the horizon: It seems that Facebook is unveiling new tools to catch users who may be at risk of attempting suicide.  According to Facebook’s website, it will be doing three things:

  • Using pattern recognition to detect posts or live videos where someone might be expressing thoughts of suicide, and to help respond to reports faster
  • Improving how we identify appropriate first responders
  • Dedicating more reviewers from our Community Operations team to review reports of suicide or self harm

As noted by the Washington Post, Facebook will be using artificial intelligence to scan posts and comments for suicidal potential, allowing posts to be found sooner and addressed to authorities:

Facebook said that it will use pattern recognition to scan all posts and comments for certain phrases to identify whether someone needs help. Its reviewers may call first responders. It will also apply artificial intelligence to prioritize user reports of a potential suicide. The company said phrases such as “Are you ok?” or  “Can I help?” can be signals that a report needs to be addressed quickly.

n the case of live video, users can report the video and contact a helpline to seek aid for their friend. Facebook will also provide broadcasters with the option to contact a helpline or another friend.

This…well, this is actually great.  I have repeatedly come down pretty hard on technology in terms of it’s impact on mental health, but this is unquestionably a good thing.  What’s most interesting to me is that Facebook is using artificial intelligence to try to reduce suicides; technology causes a problem, and technology is then used to limit said problem.

There are, of course, limits to the effectiveness of this new initiative.  Yes, it can potentially catch a person in crisis and stop them from hurting themselves.  But it won’t do anything to stop a person from reaching that point.  Social media can still do enormous harm individuals from a mental health perspective, and that’s why it is so important that anyone using social media do so responsibly and in a manner which ensures that they won’t make themselves more depressed.

Still, it’s good to see Facebook acknowledge this issue and try to do something to fix it.

Mental health and the holidays

Gobble gobble!

Now that the obligatory greeting is out of the way, here’s another: Happy Thanksgiving!  I hope that, for whatever struggles you are currently enduring, you are able to find a way to be grateful for all that you do have.

The holidays can be a stressful time, particularly for those who suffer from mental health issues.  This interesting article from Healthline notes two very accurate reasons for depression during this time period:

  • Social isolation, particularly during the holiday season, and particular if you actually don’t have the opportunity to spend time with friends and family.
  • Grieving.  The holidays can be very difficult for those who have lost someone, even more so if that death is a recent one.  After all, since the holidays are usually associated with spending time with people you love.  As such, the loss of those who you are close with can make the pain of the holidays feel virtually unbearable.

This story from a 2014 Huffington Post article adds some additional insight:

  • People tend to set unrealistic expectations for their social interaction and what they can accomplish during the Holidays (pro-tip: You aren’t Martha Stewart).
  • People try to do too much.
  • “Comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides,” particularly thanks to social media (YES this a thousand times!).

That being said, I may as well take this opportunity to dispel a suicide-related myth: Contrary to popular belief, suicides do not increase during the holidays.  In fact, they actually decrease.

On a personal level, I was always relatively okay during the holidaus, even at my most depressed points, though there were some rough patches.  Thanksgiving and Christmas were always nice, but, randomly, what always got me was the 4th of July.  It’s supposed to be a fun, relaxed holiday, but somehow, I always spent it alone, or frequently with people who I didn’t really like and made me feel alone.  There’s something about holidays that can just make you feel like a loser…like, you are supposed to be having fun and aren’t.  Isn’t that the worst?

So, how do you survive?  Some thoughts:

  • First and foremost, don’t even think about talking about Donald Trump.
  • Stay.  The.  Hell.  Off.  Of.  Facebook.  Seriously.  As I’ve discussed previously, social media can be really bad for your mental health, and this can be particularly true for moments when you are already vulnerable from a mental health perspective.  For your own sanity, limit your time on social media.  It will be way, way too easy to, as the note above says, “compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”
  • It’s Thanksgiving.  Try to be as thankful as you can be.  That’s easier said, than done, of course.  But, to the extent that you are able, think about it.  If you are reading this blog, you have internet access, which is better than the more than three billion people who don’t have internet access. That likely means you live in the developed world, which means you have access to food, clean drinking water, modern sanitation systems and decent medical care.  It’s not much, but try to remember – odds are, you have it better than billions of people across the planet.  That has to count for something.  Challenge yourself to shift your perspective; yeah, you have the racist uncle sitting two seats down, and he’s had one to many Coors, but odds are still better you have it better than billions.
  • Remember – if you are able – actually relax!  The holidays were designed for unwinding.  Need a break?  Take it.  The damn turkey can wait.  You’re more important.
  • If you are someone (like me) who values routine, don’t let the holidays knock you off of it.  I’m still going to the gym.  I’m still gonna go to sleep and wake up at my usual times.  I’d recommend the same for anyone else.

This isn’t much – and it may be woefully inadequate for what you are facing, that I completely understand – but hopefully these little tips can help make your holiday a little better.

Happy holidays, readers!  I am thankful for many things in my life, and that certainly includes those of you who keep coming back to read what I have to say.  I hope you have a great holiday season, and a very happy Thanksgiving!

How to look at social media and not want to throw your phone out a window

As I’ve written before, social media can be really, really, really bad for your mental health.  This is for a variety of reasons, including:

  • It inspires unrealistic comparisons between yourself and others.
  • It creates unrealistic and unhealthy expectations of how someone should be living their life.
  • It can lead to increased feelings of isolation.
  • It can inspire jealousy.

All of this, and more, are why I am going to be paying particular attention to research and experiences as they pertain to social media and mental health.  I swear, it’s almost like we need a primer on how to teach people to use social media at this point.  I’m looking at my kids – they are 6 and almost 5 – and terrified of the day that I will have to relent, give them a phone, and allow them to be exposed to the world that isn’t real.

Let me go back to what I just said: A primer.  Seriously, we need that when we go on social media!  The world that appears in our newsfeed can be so fake, so overwhelming and so depressing, that I think it’s important that we keep a few things in mind when we use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more.  Some initial thoughts:

First, and most importantly: THIS.  IS.  NOT.  THE.  REAL.  WORLD.  Say it with me now: “Social media is not the real world.”  That happy, smiling family?  Probably upset as often as you.  That sweet looking couple?  They have struggles, too.  Social media allows for a very biased view of the world, where everyone looks shiny and happy and pretty.  It is so, so important to keep in mind that there is very little about social media that is real.  People choose to present a biased picture of themselves, one in which they seem perfect, even if they aren’t.  If you can keep that in mind while scrolling through your newsfeed, odds are good that you won’t be quite as miserable while you scroll.

Second, approach social media with a Dale Carnegie perspective.  I took a Dale Carnegie course about a decade ago and it changed my life.  One of the most important lessons I learned was this: No one wants to hear about you.  In the course of public discourse, instead of focusing obsessively on yourself, focus on other people and how you can make them feel good.  To that end, when you are on Facebook and Instagram, don’t scroll through your feed looking for likes and clicks on your own content.  Instead, approach social media from the prospective of how you can make someone else happy.  Like other people’s comments.  Try to be joyful and happy for their accomplishments.  Instead of comparing yourself to others, try to just be happy for other people.

And yes, I know that is easier said than done.

Third, stop comparing yourself.  Yes, this is directly related to item #1: If you use social media and think, “Why aren’t having as good a time as Jimmy is?” you are going to make yourself depressed.  If you use it and think “Well, good for them, they are having fun!” you’ll be fine.  Remember, in this instance, treat social media like the real world: Do you run around, comparing yourself to random people that you see on the street?  I hope not.

Anything else to add?  Let us know in the comments!

Social media is (mostly) terrible for your mental health

Before I was a State Representative, my full time job was to work for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.  Among other things, I ran the Chamber’s social media, while also teaching small business owners how to make more money by using Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn.  I used to do presentations on a pretty regular basis, and I’d always joke that, when I first started using Facebook in college, I never thought that I’d be teaching people how to use it to make more money!

Yeah, about that: I also never thought it would make people more depressed, but here we are.

First, a disclaimer: I’m still social media obsessed.  Facebook & Twitter are my two vices, with a side of LinkedIn & Instagram.  That being said, there is ample evidence to show that social media is bad for your mental health.

Here’s what the research shows.

First, social media forces others to make unrealistic comparisons of themselves with others.  I always come back to my first days in college, being stuck in my dorm room, crying, and telling my Dad that I was the only one who felt this miserable.  His response stuck with me: Of course that’s what I thought!  I was literally the only one in my room!  Countless others were in their room, bawling their eyes out, and all I saw were people enjoying themselves.

Likewise, people only upload happy, smiling pictures and their successes to Facebook and Instagram.  News feeds can give you a distorted picture of reality and lead to the impression that everyone is much, much happier than you.  That’s because people only show their successes – not their failures.  But this comparison is terrible for your mental health.

Second, social media can make people depressed. Studies have shown that social networking makes people feel more depressed and have negative effects on self-esteem.  According to this 2017 study, more time on social media is correlated with higher levels of anxiety.  Perhaps most fascinating is this 2016 study:

Users who took a week-long break from the social media site were found to be more satisfied with life and rated their own well-being as higher.

Third, social networking doesn’t necessarily make anyone more social or feel more connected.  According to a study which appeared in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, higher social media use led to increased perceived social isolation:

Young adults with high SMU [social media utilization] seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU. Future research should focus on determining directionality and elucidating reasons for these associations.

Oh, and all of this says nothing about cyber bullying, a major problem for today’s youth.

Not for nothing, but the worst network for your mental health?  According to this Time article, Instagram:

While the photo-based platform got points for self-expression and self-identity, it was also associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.”

The evidence also makes it clear that this affect can be magnified in kids and teenagers, who are still developing their sense of selves and frequently have the greatest issues with self-confidence.

All of this being said, I don’t want to make it sound like social networking is all bad for your mental health.  As the same Time article I cited above notes, there are many positives:

There were certainly some benefits associated with social networking. All of the sites received positive scores for self-identity, self-expression, community building and emotional support, for example. YouTube also got high marks for bringing awareness of other people’s health experiences, for providing access to trustworthy health information and for decreasing respondents’ levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Social networking is a tool: It can be used for good or for bad.  The problem, here, is becoming more apparent: Social media is stunting our social relationships, mental growth and ability to truly connect with each others.  While more research needs to be done, and more time is needed, it truly appears that these communication tools are having the reverse effect that they sought: They are making us more isolated and separated.  Considering their rapid and continued raise, this is a disturbing possibility.