In February 2015, University of Missouri-Columbia researchers confirmed what many of us have already suspected: Facebook causes depression by triggering feelings of envy.
This isn’t the first time a link was established between social media use and mental health. A 2012 study, commissioned by Anxiety UK, discovered that sites like Twitter and Facebook aggravated feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, while a 2013 study from the University of Michigan suggested that Facebook users experience a significant decline in well-being.
The explanation for this seems intuitive enough: When you see “friends” flaunt the best parts of their lives on social media, you feel like you don’t measure up. As a result, you experience negative feelings such as envy toward your friends and resentment at your own lot in life.
But is that all there is to it? Is social media really the insidious, 21st Century plague that pundits make it out to be? Or is it a case of viewing complex issues like mental health and technology through overly-microscopic lenses?
Of Correlation and Causation
Some experts argue that excessive social media use is a symptom, rather than a cause, of mental illness. For example: a joint study by The Australia National University (ANU) and the Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) in China found that depression sufferers are more active on Weibo—a Chinese social media site—between 11 PM and 3 AM.
To temper these claims, there are also studies about social media’s positive effects on mental health. According to researchers from the University of California in San Diego, happy status updates are infectious; that is, they encourage anyone who’s seen them to post their own happy statuses. And, surprisingly, people with mental illnesses are willing to publicly share their experiences in order to help others.
Let’s also not forget the possibility that there’s no connection between social media and mental health at all. 89 percent of social media users are between 18 and 29 years old: a group that’s already 60 percent more likely to experience depression.
It’s Not the Tool, But the One Who Uses It
With all these contradictory findings about the relationship between “the blues” and our favorite blue-colored sites (Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr), you have to ask: Should you do away with social media altogether?
According to Margaret Duffy, a chair of strategic communication at the MU School of Journalism, it depends.
“Facebook can be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives,” says Duffy. “However, if Facebook is used to see how well an acquaintance is doing financially, or how happy an old friend is in his relationship—things that cause envy among users—use of the site can lead to feelings of depression.”
This might explain the conflicting results of the studies above: People who use social media to forge genuine connections (e.g. YouTube personalities who talk about their struggles with mental illness) are more likely to feel better about themselves than users who log in just to size up their accomplishments against those of others. Another problem that continues to stymy both parents and regulators is the fact that children are gaining access to the Internet at increasingly young ages. The result? About 43% of American teens aged 13-17 have experienced cyberbullying in the past year.
Social Media Reflects Reality (To an Extent)
Aside from how you use social media, your emotional maturity also determines how social media affects you. For instance, in their 2011 study on college students, researchers Maria Kalpidou, Dan Costin, and Jessica Morris wrote: “The number of Facebook friends was negatively associated with emotional and academic adjustment among first-year students but positively related to social adjustment and attachment to institution among upper-class students.” In other words, as a student progresses through college, s/he learns to value the quality—rather than the quantity—of friendships, and gets more out of these relationships as a result.
For the most part, though, social media skews your perception of reality. To quote Steven Furtick: “One reason we struggle with insecurity: we’re comparing our behind-the-scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel.” People treat social media the way they treat most face-to-face interactions: They want to put their best foot forward.
Also, no one likes a Debbie Downer. How many times have you had to put up with that friend who floods your newsfeeds with rants about everything that can be ranted about? There’s no incentive for anyone to post anything negative on social media, really. Then again, keeping your wall/dashboard/feed too “clean” means you’re withholding the more realistic and relatable aspects of your life from friends.
Under the Influence
Before I bring this to a close, I’d like to take a moment to recognize another way that social media can dramatically impact our health. It pains me to say it, but more young people than ever are accessing social media while behind the wheel. This doesn’t just break an unspoken rule of the road; it’s also incredibly stupid. The good news is that today’s teens do seem more interested in social media than in actually getting behind the wheel, but this worsening trend can nevertheless serve as a reminder of the many ways that social media finds its way into our daily lives—and into our heads.
Scientists have yet to pin down the exact relationship between social media, daily behavior, and mental health. They’d have to find a way to track down millions of users, and compare these users’ offline lives with their online personas, before coming to a definitive conclusion—not an easy task, in theory or in practice.
In the meantime, let’s try not to get blinded by our friends’ highlight reels. Let’s remember that, behind all those pictures of pure happiness, there are human beings who are going through the same struggles we are, and are coping with it like we do: By constructing the best versions of themselves online.
Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons License)
“Daniel Faris is a graduate of the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University and a current resident of Harrisburg, PA. When he’s not blogging about politics at Only Slightly Biased, you can find his alter ego discussing progressive music over at New Music Friday.”One of your earlier emails indicated that this could lead to my becoming a regular contributor. That’s something I’m definitely interested in. Would I continue sending over articles this way, or would there be a login involved? Either method is fine with me; I just want to be sure I know what the procedure is as we move forward.