Steven Liu (2015, May). “Social Media and Depression.” CYS.
Does social media play a part in youth depression? This generation of teenagers is the first to grow up in the U.S. without ever having seen a world without texting, social media, and other similar forms of online communications. So much of their social reality occurrs over venues like Facebook or Snapchat, and their social world is defined by an unending connection to one another throughout the day albeit a connection without physical or auditory proximity. According to a recent poll, 75% of teenagers own cell phones and most use them for texting or social media, 22% of them accessing social media sites more than 10 times a day and more than half accessing them more than once a day. With this trend seeming to usurp traditional in-person relationships, does this new reality contribute to young people becoming depressed?
With this question in mind, let us survey some of the research that had been done by practitioners and students of mental health. There seem to be several factors pointing to a connection between social media and depression.
Late night usage of technology with light-emitting screens impacts quality of sleep. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that an extended amount of activity in front of a florescent light four hours before bed resulted in difficulty falling asleep, less REM sleep, and grogginess the next day, even after a full night of sleep. The UV spectrum of screens was found to inhibit the release of melatonin, which the body uses to regulate sleep (Arianne Cohen, 2015, Mar., “6 physical effects of binge-watching TV,” Fox News).
While this effect is not due to social media alone, studies with teenagers find that many of them did use their devices close to bed time. And true to the research, 21% of the teenagers we polled in a survey reported difficulty sleeping after using social media. Since the quantity and quality of sleep is important for adolescent development, we would expect this kind of social media usage to negatively affect youth cognitively.
Additionally, frequent use of handheld devices and social media may be correlated with difficulty concentrating. In a survey we conducted among 30 respondents, 30% of the youth reported concentration problems immediately after using social media. This factor too may be related to the sleep deprivation that sometimes comes with night-time social media consumption.
In a University of Missouri study, Facebook use was tied to depression, depending on how users used the site. Particularly, “surveillance use” of the social media site, where users checked up on how their friends were doing and compared what they saw to their own lives, tended to produce feelings of depression. Users who view Facebook in this way often “sized up their accomplishments against others”, producing envy that their vacations, possessions, or relationships could not match up to what their friends posted. An important truth to realize for those who experience this kind of envy, however, is that the image seen on a user’s social media presence is precisely that: an image that the user customizes to present the positive report of him or herself that the user desires other users to believe (Nathan Hurst, 2015, Feb., “If Facebook Use Causes Envy, Depression Could Follow,” Missouri University News). A similar study done at the University of Houston also found that this comparison behavior on social media was linked to more feelings of loneliness and isolation (Melissa Carroll, 2015, Apr., “Facebook use linked to depressive symptoms”).
In addition, cyber-bullying is a recent phenomenon that puts children in emotional and social danger. Smartphones allow for constant unsupervised access to the internet and communities where youth can be exploited or defamed by fellow youth via text or post. According to the American College of Pediatricians, “over half of adolescents state they have been bullied online and over 25 percent of adolescents state they have been bullied repeatedly through internet or on cell phones. However, only 1 in 10 teens will tell a parent about the bullying” (American College of Pediatricians, 2014 Feb., “The Media, Children, and Adolescents”). According to child psychotherapist Julie Lynn Evans, there has been an explosion of mental health issues since the turn of the century, including rises in the numbers of depression, anorexia, and cutting, all having “something to do with computer, the internet and the smartphone” (Peter Stanford, “Are smartphones making our children mentally ill?” Telegraph). The lack of traditional adult role-modeling and presence in this new societal frontier creates an unsafe peer space where all these mental health problems can thrive before adults are aware of the problems.
From the available studies and data, there seems to be enough evidence to establish that social media can contribute to depression. Social media usage is bound up with how we view and portray ourselves, in other words, it affects our sense of identity. While depression is not only emotional and spiritual, experience working with youth shows that depression often comes with a lowered sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy. When youth base their identity on what others perceive, they develop a twisted version of their own worth, value, and capacity to be loved. This inaccurate view of self leaves teens vulnerable to things like Facebook envy and depression and cyber bullying. It causes them to look to the power of social media to heal our hurts and provide affirmation when they post our authentic or inauthentic selves for the world to see. And it causes them to experience frustration and disappointment when that power lets them down.
Notes on Additional Surveys for this Research
The subjects were Chinese-Americans and Caucasians in the urban context, both middle- and high-school students. They were polled in an after school program at Boston Chinese Evangelical Church, Chinese Gospel Church of Greater Lowell, and Charlton Baptist but most of the respondents were from non-churched backgrounds.
The information we obtained led to only a few correlations with depression symptoms, but there were many findings that could be peripherally symptomatic or contributive.
One notable finding was a big difference in who obtained social-media capable devices at different points in their lives. I had expected that youth in the urban, low-income, immigrant context might obtain devices later, but in fact, they were the earliest adopters of smart-phones or other similar devices. Almost all the BCEC youth got their devices before the age of 12! By contrast Chinese Gospel Church of Greater Lowell, a suburban Chinese church, where most youth are from Christian families, had youth receiving their devices in the 13-14 age bracket. In the rural Caucasian church, Charlton Baptist, the youth obtained devices after the age of 14. This is significant, as it has been well documented that Asian American youth have higher rates of depression and suicide risk.
Finally, my analysis of the teenagers’ quantity of time spent with parents yielded some results. Out of the 13 who reported negative effects with social media (low concentration, sleep difficulty, anger, anxiety appetite), only one student had spent more than 2 trips or extended times with his or her parents in the past 12 months. Most of the others had been on 0 or 1 trip/family time. There was not enough of a connection to establish a correlation, however, since there also six youth who did not experience negative effects while also having had 0 family trips.
Social media is a powerful force in our culture. My work with teenagers has shown me that social media’s power is amplified when parents are not able to expend the in-person relational energy to balance the virtual relational allure of sites like Facebook. It is important for youth workers to help parents understand this important part of their teenagers’ social world. One practical application is offering workshops where parents can be educated about responsible management of their children’ s social media exposure, and also be able to identify signs that somebody is heading toward social media depression.
It is important for youth workers to have a presence on social media. This helps them to understand the social world of youth, but also to be able to look out for warning signs or risk indicators that would otherwise remain invisible, and to respond or counsel accordingly. In addition, youth workers should find a way to include media education to help young consumers be self-aware about messages that are being fed to them without their knowledge.
Relationally, social media can never make up for in-person relationships. Intimacy in relationships was designed with physical proximity in mind, where we can hear, touch, and see one another. We should continue to foster real-life relational communities and to challenge our own community when we follow too much in the direction of the world when it comes to valuing shallow but voluminous social media “friends” over the few but deep relationships we can have in person.
Finally, we need to understand that though there are risks associated with social media, the answer is not always to completely disconnect. Engaging with culture in a healthy, balanced way requires both creativity and wisdom.
Steven Liu, May 2015© 2020 CYS