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For several years now, we’ve been bombarded with articles pointing the finger at social media — at least in part — for the increase in reported depression among young people.
As just one example, the Telegraph reported that “children who spend more than three hours each school day on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are more than twice as likely to suffer poor mental health.”
In contrast, a more comprehensive 2017 study published in the Adolescent Research Review suggests these studies may have been jumping the gun. This was a systematic analysis of 11 studies, containing a total of 12,646 participants up to 18 years of age.
The review found “no persuasive evidence that the internet is to blame” for increased depression. And “only a weak correlation between teenagers’ use of social media and depression” was present.
The wording of these findings is important. Yes, there is a weak but statistically significant correlation between social media use and depression. But there is no persuasive evidence that the internet is to blame.
Putting the Cart Before the Horse
In his book Bad Science (UK), Ben Goldacre explains that “anyone who ever expresses anything with certainty [relating to health] is basically wrong, because the evidence for cause and effect in this area is almost always weak and circumstantial.”
The same is true when it comes to social media and depression. Let’s not assume that social media is to blame just because depressed adolescents are using it.
Depression Leads to Social Media Use
In the recent analysis, some data indicated that “psychologically vulnerable young people are more likely to turn to the internet for social support.” This mirrors the findings of a 2013 study showing that online communication could be used as a social crutch for shy and anxious young people.
To many, the internet is a place where the risks of real-life interaction are lessened. Where we can hide or express ourselves in a way that we can’t as easily do offline. Many people with low self-esteem prefer the online interaction, where replies and posts can be edited to perfection. This might be easier than risking the gauntlet of embarrassing interactions in real life.
Depression often comes with a feeling of lethargy and a dread of real-life social interaction. In cases like these, according to a 2005 study, “socializing online may be preferred as a substitute to interacting face-to-face.”
If this is true, it’s no wonder studies are finding an increased number of depressed adolescents online. It’s their safe haven, not the cause of their depression. A place where they can ask questions — ask for help — in a way they wouldn’t dare to do face-to-face.
More Diagnoses of Depression
Another contributor to the myth that social media causes depression is the way in which depression is diagnosed.
The past few years have seen a massive increase in mental health awareness. This is obviously to be welcomed. But increased awareness also stokes fear, which leads to more doctor visits and more diagnoses.
And then we have changes in diagnostic practice. This could be due to the marketing of certain drugs or improvements in detecting symptoms. Or it could be due to lowering the threshold for diagnosing depression. Moynihan and Henry (2006) define this as “the selling of sickness that widens the boundaries of illness and grows the markets for those who sell and deliver treatments.”
This rise in diagnoses of depression has been running parallel to the growth in popularity of social media for the past 10 years. It’s understandable that people have been linking the two. But lack of evidence points to that link being little more than circumstantial.
There is (as of yet) no proof that social media is the cause of that rise in diagnoses of depression.
Social Media Isn’t the Cure Either
All of this isn’t to disregard or downplay the epidemic of digital addiction. Nor is it to say that social media should be seen as a solution to adolescent depression. It shouldn’t. That isn’t what social media was built for.
Social media should not be where young people crawl to for solace. The low self-esteem that comes with depression is not something that can necessarily be fixed with superficial, virtual interaction.
It needs real people to sit down and talk, support, and empathize with each other.
Yes, 40 percent of people with depressive symptoms may be able to express feelings online that they could not do otherwise. That may lead to some light, immediate relief — and increased social media use.
But with up to 80 percent of online calls for help going unanswered, social media use can easily serve to reinforce negative emotions. To build envy. Or compound depressive symptoms. It might even worsen depression (though not directly cause it).
What we’re left with here is the view that social media may be the place where depressed adolescents choose to search for support. But it is neither the cause, nor the cure, of that depression. Instead, it may actually serve to feed depression.
Treating the Problem
If your own child spends “too much” time on social media and shows signs of depression, you should take all of this into account.
Look out for symptoms of depression, including:
- Not enjoying things that used to be enjoyable.
- Frequent irritability.
- Feeling worthless.
- Noticeable changes in weight or eating habits.
- Not caring about the future.
- Avoiding family and friends.
- Lack of energy.
Rather than immediately blaming an excessive use of social media, try to focus on the benefits of real-world communication. Talk to your children. Engage them with fun, creative activities. Be a role model for positivity.
When it comes to tech, try to limit screen time and promote sensible internet use. But fixating solely on the negatives of social media, or the internet at large, seems unlikely to directly help with depression.
If none of this bears fruit, talk to your child’s doctor. There is plenty that can be done to help.
How much of a help, or hindrance, do you think social media can be to someone suffering from depression?
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