In an age where Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social networking websites hoover up an inordinate amount of our time, people are increasingly questioning the value of these interactions and their impact on our mental health. Many are wondering about their own use of these tools or see a friend or family member glued to their screen and wonder how this type of 'social interaction' might be impacting their mood.
Much has been said about so called 'Facebook Depression.' This term makes about as much sense as 'sitting depression' or 'dealing with jerks all day at work depression' which is to say that doing too much of either would probably impact negatively on a person's mood. True depression is much more complex than this and involves brain chemistry, genetics, our thought process, emotional and stress tolerances, our habits and behaviours, and our socioeconomic status among other things. The idea of Facebook Depression narrowly focuses on one activity that, albeit, some people spend a lot of time doing, a subset of which are unhappy and a smaller subset are depressed. While it was widely reported a few years ago that high Facebook use was linked to depression, more recent studies have seemed to refute that conclusion, or at least point to more nuanced findings.
Lately, research on the effects of social networking use is starting to go beyond the question of whether it is good or it is bad. As an example, recent research out of the University of Houston found that the mediating variable between Facebook use and depression is social comparison. People that look through their feed and think, "why doesn't my life look like this?" (something I'm sure everyone is guilty of at least one time or another) and feel badly about themselves fit a long standing social psychology theory of the impact of upward social comparison - when we compare ourselves to people doing better than ourselves we feel bad. Interestingly the complementary social psychology theory, that downward social comparison (comparing ourselves to people that are doing worse than us) leaves us feeling better about ourselves was not borne out by this research. Instead, they found that people that did more comparison on Facebook (upward or downward) were more likely to experience depression than those that did not compare as much. Other recent research out of the University College Dublin has suggested that use of Facebook is more likely to trigger depression if a person has more friends, spends more time reading posts from their wider circle of friends and does so regularly, and when there is more 'bragging' going on in the posts that they read. This lends credence to the idea that social comparison is at the heart of any connection between Facebook use and depression.
These are interesting findings, and will hopefully drive further inquiry and broader philosophical questions such as, what is the effect of (near) limitless social data? Does it matter whether we are active social media users that are posting, RTing, commenting, liking, tagging, favouriting, following, and DMing, or are passively browsing the updates from our friends (and, let's be honest here, our enemies)? Are the people that are doing more comparing on Facebook and other social networks doing a lot of comparing in regular life too? Are people that are already depressed more likely than non depressed people to spend time on social networking sites than do other things that might help them feel better? Social networking is clearly not going anywhere and in time the research will catch up to its incredible popularity. Until then, if you are a person who wonders about whether social networking use is impacting your mood negatively, here are a few things to consider:
1. Are you doing a lot of comparing while on social media? We all do it, no doubt about it, but is it a constant and unyielding pattern? If so, consider taking a break, and remind yourself that the social media posts that we might be comparing ourselves to often only reflect a particular angle and are usually carefully constructed to display a certain image. On Facebook, for example, how many of your friends routinely post disappointments and setbacks (that are not followed by LOL FML or some other jokey phrase)? We need to remind ourselves that many people use social media as a sort of highlight reel of their life. If we aren't thinking critically about the intention behind the images and postings that we view in massive quantities daily, we can easily assume that everyone has it made while we are sitting at home with nothing to do, no one to do it with, and hardly a meal worth Instagramming.
2. Consider why you use social media and how you use it. Is it out of boredom? Is it to stay in touch with people? Is it to build new relationships? To stay informed? Once you've figured out why you use these sites, consider whether your use is actually meeting these goals and whether there are any unintended side effects. If there are, consider backing off or shifting your use in a way that more aligns with your priorities. For example, consider the person that uses Twitter to stay in the loop on news and current events and finds themselves inadvertently focusing more on follower counts and starts feeling that they don't measure up compared to certain Twitter elites. For them, is Twitter really the best way to get news and current events? Can they alter their use to better meet their needs?
3. How is your balance in terms of connecting with real life people compared to online avatars and their emojis? Too much of anything can cause our life to start to feel out of balance, so consider how you are doing in terms of real world interactions versus the online version.
4. Ultimately, a good question to ask yourself is: do you feel better or worse after clicking around on your social network of choice? If you aren't sure, take a break for a week or two and see how you feel. If you find that you feel better after a break, consider taking a step back or limiting your use.
I'm a firm believer that social networks are just tools that can be used skillfully to meet our needs or un-skillfully to undermine our needs and negatively impact our mental health. I'm hopeful that the research will keep pressing beyond the 'good' or 'bad' dichotomy and continue to ask more nuanced questions.