The Availability Heuristic and You

Alright, you’ve read this blog before, right? So, what do I hate more than almost anything else, despite the fact that I just can’t stop checking it? Yes, social media. I’ve written over and over and over about how evil it is and how much harm it can cause and blah, blah, blah…

(Okay, yes, I know it isn’t necessarily THAT bad, and that it does have many positive benefits, but people should use it with caution)

Anyway, I had an interesting conversation the other day about how terrible things are in the world and how all it seems like you hear is bad news. My friend and I were discussing this, and he specifically mentioned the Availability Heuristic.

For those of you who didn’t take Psych 101, in the most simple terms possible, the Availability Heuristic is the notion that what you see is what you get. Your mind, when thinking of things, thinks of the loudest or most recent things that it sees.

And this, in turn, can really lead to depression. Particularly in a social media-heavy world.

Think about it: You sign onto social media, and what do you see? TRUMP SETS THINGS ON FIRE! DEMOCRATS SET BABIES ON FIRE!

I mean, I’m kidding…a little. But as you scroll, you get more and more depressed. We’re exposed to a good chunk of statistics and information that other generations couldn’t even fathom. This can warp our perception of the world and alter our moods and feelings.

Given the reality of the Availability Heuristic, I am convinced that this is part of why we have so much trouble in the universe today. We see and think of things that are only immediately available and memorable. And that’s the bad news.

I mention this because I think this is an interesting way of framing the conversation of social media. There’s a set, cognitive bias for why we think and feel the way we do, and the better we understand this, the more sense all of our minds will make. Remember, it’s not just you. Cognitive biases like these exist to poke us in the head and make us see things a certain way. They have their evolutionary benefits to be sure, but sometimes, they can run amok.

So, short of throwing your phone out the window, what can you do if you do find yourself getting depressed by the evening news and your Twitter feed? Remind yourself of this fundamental truth: The bad news is sticking in your brain more than the good. This is normal – even healthy to an extent – but it isn’t as bad as it seems.

“People who conquered depression and/or anxiety, what’s the #1 factor that helps you?”

As some of my prior entries have indicated, I’m a big fan of Reddit. If you use it the right way it can be hilarious, inspirational and adorable.

One of the more popular subreddits – and certainly one of my favorites – is AskReddit. In AskReddit, users can post a question to the Reddit community. Some of the questions are serious: “Why can’t you sleep tonight?” Some are hilarious: “You’re being interrogated and so far you’ve held strong. What song do they play on repeat that breaks you?”

And then there’s moments like these:

This was truly interesting. The top responses are largely along the lines of answers you might expect: Sleeping well at night, keep busy, stay away from social media (irony, right?), stop overthinking, etc.

I answered this question (surprise!), but I took my answer in a different direction. Here’s what I said:

I’m gonna spin this one on its head a bit. I think it’s important to address this answer to those of us who haven’t conquered depression or anxiety, and who never will.

Depression for some is a temporary condition as a result of a variety of factors, including social or cultural experiences, genetics, your upbringing or traumatic events. For people like this, time, therapy and/or medication – as well as lifestyle changes – can result in permanently defeating depression, and never seeing it again.

For other individuals – and people like me – it’s a permanent, chronic condition. Personally, I’m lucky – my ups are relatively long and my downs are manageable. For now. But, for people who will never truly rid themselves of depression or anxiety – who will experience it all their lives – it’s important to realize that this may be your world. Some people are cursed with physical disabilities which dramatically alter their lives and the way they experience it. For others, like us, it’s a mental disability.

What’s the #1 factor that helped me? I honestly think that one of them is this knowledge. The idea that I will never, truly be rid of depression. Why has this helped? It takes the pressure off. It makes me realize that I can lead a good life, even if this is always who I’ll be. That the “black dog” – as Churchill called it – will be a constant companion and challenge.

Second: To an extent, I have power over it. No, I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of depression. I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of the sinking feeling in my chest, the tension at the base of my neck, the imposture syndrome, the constant fear of losing everything and everyone I love. But I do have control. If I seize it, there are things I can do. That means self-care – therapy, medication, writing, working out being a type-A personality, etc. I accept that it has ruined other parts of my life, but strove to make me better in a variety of others.

Third: Accepting the positives of depression. It has made me constantly force myself to do something to improve myself, my life or those around me. It has made me tougher. It has given me a perspective and sense of empathy which I could never have imagined. And it has dramatically and positively impacted my career (I’m a State Representative in Pennsylvania, where I work largely on mental health issues – I also write and blog on the topic).

Yeah, leave it to a politician to not answer the question and answer it at the same time………..

My answer was long enough and pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth noting again: Some people don’t “conquer” depression. They just learn to live with it, how to manage its ups and downs. I think that’s me. Once I accepted that – once I stopped kicking myself for feeling the way I did – it let go a lot of stress.

That being said, I don’t want to make it seem like my answer to the question was somehow crapping on the other ones. Less time on the internet, sleeping right, etc. – those are REALLY GOOD WAYS of beating depression. I just think that, for some of us, the idea of “conquering” depression is a bridge too far, sadly.

But that doesn’t mean it gets to run our life!

 

I’m just gonna try to make you smile for a second: Here are seven subreddits you should look at

Does the internet help with depression in the long term? Social media definitely doesn’t.

But, that’s not to say that all social media is evil. Some of it is downright wonderful.

One of the most popular social media/internet forums is Reddit. Reddit, for those of you who don’t know, is one of the longest running internet communities of…anything. And I mean anything.

For those of you who want more info, this video is a good starting point:

Reddit is made up of a series of topic discussion boards, called subreddits, that are organized around certain topics.

Now, just to be clear, like all forms of the internet, Reddit can be absolutely, positively terrible. It’s comment can be insanely abusive and it’s sleuthing “abilities” have led mobs on wild vigilante quests. Thankfully, most of these uses are rare, and if you stick to the right subreddits, you can find some amazing content, guaranteed to make you smile.

So, even if you don’t have a Reddit account (you don’t need one), here are seven subreddits which will absolutely bring a smile to your face.

  1. BeforeNAfterAdoption: Pictures of kitties, puppies and the like, before they are adopted and after. They go from beaten and beaten down to happy and playful.
  2. Aww: It’s just cute things. It’s just cute, cuddly things that will make you go AWWWWWWW.
  3. DadReflexes: If you’re a Dad (or Mom, let’s be real), you know the meaning of this phrase – you get so good at watching your kid that you reflexively can move to keep them out of trouble. These are videos and GIFs which show prime examples of Dad Reflexess saving their kids from trouble.
  4. AnimalsBeingBros: Sounds like you need some more cute animal videos! Here’s animals being friends with each other. Wish humans could get along this well.
  5. Funny: Arguably the most self-descriptive subreddit name ever. Also, yes, it really is funny.
  6. PhotoshopBattles: People will upload great pictures for the purpose of being photoshopped into amazing situations. Examples include cats being kicked in the face by other cats, police officers with two foot differences between them, and more. Words aren’t going to do it justice. Go look!
  7. UpliftingNews: The news is terribly depressing. Here’s a thread of amazing, wonderful news which shows that maybe the world isn’t going to hell in a hand basket at quite the speed it seems like it is.

Any other good subreddits to share? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Two major mental health trends, with one unifying theme

Two articles jumped out at me over this weekend. The first was this extremely long and in-depth look at a major suicide study done decades ago, which showed that even the occasional letter from a therapist can get someone through a crisis and significantly reduce suicide rates. The second touches on the topic you’ve all heard me discuss many times before: The rise of depression and suicide in young adults, and the potential role that smart phones may play.

The commonality here is obvious: The importance of relationships in stopping a mental health crisis and maintaining happy lives.

The Huffington Post article tracks the work of Dr. Jerome Motto, who engaged in a massive suicide study. His team tracked tracked mentally ill patients and found that sending letters to them could dramatically reduce suicide attempts, a study that, according to the article, has been backed up by other, similar studies, including this one by Gregory Carter:

Gregory Carter, who ran a psychiatry service in New South Wales, Australia, orchestrated a study in which Motto’s words were typed onto a postcard illustrated with a cartoon dog clutching an envelope in its mouth. The notes were sent eight times over the course of 12 months to patients who were among the hardest to treat. The majority had histories of trauma, including rape and molestation. Some had made repeated suicide attempts. But Carter found there was a 50 percent reduction in attempts by those who received the postcards. When he checked in on the study’s participants five years later, the letters’ effects were still strong. And the cost per patient was a little over $11.

Meanwhile, the USA Today article I noted above places at least some of the blame of the rise in depression among teenagers and young adults on cell phones:

San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge sees a direct link between how much time teens spend on smartphones and troubling signs of mental health distress.

In her 2017 book “iGen,” she cited national health surveys and other statistics to argue that a generation of teens have turned to smartphones as their preferred social outlet, and teens who spend the most time on their screens are more likely to be unhappy.

“What you get is a fundamental shift in how teens spend their leisure time,” Twenge told USA TODAY. “They are spending less time sleeping, less time with their friends face to face. … It is not something that happened to their parents. It is not something that happens as a world event.”

There’s a common connection here, and it’s pretty obvious: People – all of us – need each other.

The simple fact is this: iPhones and social media are build on the premise of building a further connection between people, and while that’s certainly possible, I’d argue that they really just keep us apart. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else, but when we use our phones instead of talking to people face to face, we’re not building anything. It may increase our surface knowledge of someone’s life, but it’s not a substitute for a real interaction. It’s like heaving sugar for dinner instead of a healthy meal – it may fill you up, but there’s nutritious about what you are eating, and eventually, it rots you from the inside.

The article about sending letters to suicidal people backs up this point, in my opinion. People can, apparently, be brought back from the brink by hearing from someone who truly cares. I will not presume to imagine what is going through the mind of someone who is at the point of a suicide attempt. But from what I’ve read – and what I’ve experienced when I was close to that point – suicide isn’t really about dying, per se. It’s about someone wanting to stop their pain. To know that they have a reason to hope. So, if you get an authentic person sending a real message – hey, how are you doing, I’m thinking about you and I care about you – can that fill a void? Can that bring a person back from the edge? Dr. Motto’s research, and that of others, would certainly seem to imply that the answer to that question is yes.

It seems to me that these two articles detailing the rise in suicide and depression have someone in common – humans are losing their innate ability to connect with others, and doing so can solve many of our mental health issues.

As always, I welcome your thoughts. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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):

F4.large

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.

New study links social media and depression

I’ve written about it before, and now there is even more proof: A new study has linked social media and depression

I caught this article in Forbes, which notes:

The team calculated that for every 10% rise in negative social media interactions a person experienced, their risk of depression rose significantly—by 20%. For every 10% rise in positive experience, risk for depression fell by 4%; but this association was not statistically significant, meaning it could have been due to chance.

Lovely. In other words, negative experiences on social media can make us depressed, and they far outweigh the positive ones. Why? According to the conclusion of the study, this is because of “negativity bias” – meaning that people are more likely to remember and feel negative experiences, rather than positive ones.

I don’t need to go on too long of a rant, I think, about the serious dangers of social media when it comes to our fragile mental health. The connection is clear, albeit not in a causational way just yet (there needs to be more research to determine if people who are prone to depression are more likely to use social media, if social media really does make people depressed or if there is a third factor linking the two).

That being said, I think it is extremely clear that social media and technology, for all their strengths, can have an absolutely devastating impact on our mental health. I legitimately wonder if, decades from now, we’re going to look back on this period as a turning point in our society, one where we first truly began to deal with the psychological dangers of society, or continued to allow it to eat us alive.

I’m pretty young – only 35 – so it’s not as if I have the memory or expertise to analyze how each technological impact benefited and hurt society. I suspect that the answer is both. However, I think that the reason that these changes seem so much more pronounced and ubiquitous is because the technology has evolved too. Phones never leave our side – they are often the first and last things we touch during the day, and we spend hours staring at their tiny screens, searching for connection and fulfillment that will never really come. They are everywhere, and so is their impact.

That, I think, is why these changes seem so much more widepsread. Rates of depression and suicide are both increasing dramatically, and there is ample evidence which indicates that phone use and social media is playing a role. We need to do more about this issue. What that means, I don’t know yet, but I want to find out.

Sigh. End rant. I miss anything? Anything you want to add? Give us your thoughts in the comments below!

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.