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A Diagnosis of Social Media Depression
Appeared in New York University’s Medical Dialogue Review
Just as it seems that “life was much simpler when ‘Apple’ and ‘Blackberry’ were just fruits,” it also seems that people were much happier before the advent of social networking sites. In the not-so-distant past, the only time we had to socialize with those “happy-go-lucky” people were when we were out in public. And let’s be honest. Those major obligatory social events – alumni retreats, family reunions, and weddings – were probably the worst. These occasions are often accompanied with unwelcome reminders of others’ successes and more importantly, our own failures and shortcomings. Perhaps these reminders are of how life has been hard for us or how we haven’t been able to accomplish as much as we had hoped for. At least at the end of the day, we could sit back, relax, and rewind. Unfortunately, the advent of social networking sites has made this escape a thing of the past as those “happy-go-lucky” people and those unwelcome reminders are able to follow us into our private lives. If you can relate, then know this: you’re not alone.
Many medical professionals and researchers have coined the term “social media depression” for the depressive symptoms that are associated with using social media (English, 2011). Despite the term’s usage, social media depression has not yet been formally defined or categorized as a clinical diagnosis (English, 2011). Nevertheless, considering the dramatic rise of depression among young adults, it is understandable why the reality of social media as a cause is a growing concern. For the past fifty to seventy years, the rate of depression has been increasing – “Today five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or an anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago” (Gary, 2010). And just as the rate of depression has been increasing, so too has the usage of social networking sites among young adults. As stated in a February 2010 report, of the young Americans who have access to the internet, 73% of them used social networking sites (Lenhart et al., 2010). This was a significant increase from the 55% in November 2006 and from the 65% in February 2008 (Lenhart et al., 2010). Now many medical professionals and researchers are saying that increasing usage of social networking sites, such as Facebook and Myspace, are partly to blame for the increasing rate of depression.
Although it is easy to blame the increasing usage of social networking sites for the increasing rate of depression, it is more difficult to find the specific relationship between the two variables. Is there a causal relationship? And if so, is it because depressed people are more inclined to spend time on social networking sites? Or is the reverse of this statement true, that spending more time on social networking sites makes people depressed? And if not, is there at least a correlation between the two variables?
Although no experiment has yet been conducted to identify a causal relationship, there have been several studies conducted to identify a correlational relationship. Based on 216 college undergraduates’ real-time internet usage data and survey information using the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale (CES-D scale), researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology found a positive correlation between internet usage and depressive symptoms (Kotikalapudi et al., 2012). In another study, based on 160 high school students’ anonymous interviews and survey information using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI), researchers at the University of Belgrade also found a positive correlation between usage of social networking sites and depressive symptoms (Pantic et al., 2012). Therefore, although a causal relationship has yet to be formally studied, it seems that the more often a person uses the internet or social networking sites, the more likely it is that person will display symptoms of depression, or vice versa.
The next logical step is to identify the reason behind the positive correlation between usage of social networking sites and depressive symptoms. Although researchers propose several explanations, the umbrella term “pluralistic ignorance” seems to summarize many of their viewpoints. Pluralistic ignorance is “a psychological state characterized by the belief that one’s private attitudes and judgments are different from those of others, even though one’s public behavior is identical” (Prentice, 1993).
To fully understand and appreciate this psychological phenomenon, it is necessary to briefly summarize a study or two that are seemingly irrelevant to social media depression or social networking sites. In order to study pluralistic ignorance, researchers at Princeton University conducted several studies to examine the relation between college undergraduates’ personal attitudes towards alcohol consumption and their estimates of the attitudes of their peers. If the college undergraduates were suffering from pluralistic ignorance, they would indicate that they themselves had a relatively less positive attitude toward alcohol consumption than they supposed most of their peers had (Gilovich, 2010). This is exactly what the researchers found. Essentially what this means is that “[College undergraduates] believe that drinking alcohol is more popular among their peers than it really is. [And] because of this belief, they censor their own reservations about drinking, thus furthering the illusion that alcohol is so popular” (Gilovich, 2010).
With regard to social media depression and social networking sites, researchers at Stanford University have proposed the possibility of the emotional analogue of pluralistic ignorance – emotional pluralistic ignorance. They describe it as the phenomenon in which “People perceive others’ apparent well-being in public settings and infer from this that other people are genuinely content with their lives, both in the moment and in private settings” (Jordan, 2011). In order to study emotional pluralistic ignorance, they conducted several studies to examine the relation between college undergraduates’ personal emotions and their estimates of the emotions of their peers. If people were suffering from emotional pluralistic ignorance, they would indicate that they themselves had relatively less positive emotions than they supposed most of their peers had. Again, this is exactly what the researchers found. The results obtained from their studies show: 1) people underestimate other people’s negative emotions; 2) people overestimate other people’s positive emotions; 3) people are more private with their negative emotions than their positive emotions; 4) people were unable to accurately estimate the emotions of even those close of them; and 5) the more people underestimated other people’s negative emotions or overestimated other people’s positive emotions, the greater their loneliness and the lower their life satisfaction (Jordan, 2011). What this means is that “People may think they are more alone in their emotional difficulties than they actually are” (Jordan, 2011).
Although the studies and the results on emotional pluralistic ignorance conducted by Stanford University refer mainly to real public settings, the researchers believe they can nevertheless be extended and applied to virtual public settings, such as social networking sites (Jordan, 2011). If their belief is correct, this would mean that just as people are more private with their negative emotions than their positive emotions in real public settings, they will act similarly in virtual public settings. In fact, the same researchers believe that social networking sites may even exacerbate emotional pluralistic ignorance (Jordan, 2011). This seems reasonable as findings show that from their profile pictures to their statuses, young adults do indeed tend to exude positivity (Rosecrans). From their happy profile pictures to their positive statuses, it seems that many of our friends are having the time of their lives and that everyone is “happy-go-lucky” (Rosecrans). However, the information from real public settings and virtual public settings paints an inaccurate and incomplete picture as it only provides a glimpse into the lives of our friends. It is possible that this emotional pluralistic ignorance may be a contributing factor for the positive correlation between usage of social networking sites and depressive symptoms.
In light of this information and out of concern for our overall well-being, we have to consider how we should protect ourselves from being subjected to social media depression. Should we forgo social networking sites and deactivate/delete our accounts? It is a loaded question seeing as how social networking sites have become an integral part of our lives. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine our lives without them.
What is important to note is that, regardless of whether or not it actually contributes to the positive correlation between usage of social networking sites and depressive symptoms, emotional pluralistic ignorance is a real phenomenon and that it does occur. However, there may be a way to counter this phenomenon from occurring. With regard to pluralistic ignorance and alcohol, researchers at Princeton University conducted a study to examine the relation between the effects of educating college undergraduates about pluralistic ignorance and their drinking behavior. The researchers found that when college undergraduates were made aware of the phenomenon, which provided accurate knowledge of their peers’ attitudes towards alcohol consumption, they indicated that they drank less alcohol (Schroeder, 1998). Basically, it seems that education of pluralistic ignorance counters the phenomenon itself. Perhaps analogously, education of emotional pluralistic ignorance would counter the phenomenon itself, as well. That is to say, perhaps if people were made aware that, despite their happy profile pictures and their positive statuses, their friends aren’t exactly having the time of their lives or are not as “happy-go-lucky” as them may seem in real public settings or virtual public settings, then they themselves would experience lower loneliness and greater life satisfaction.
Depression, regardless of its causes, is a serious issue among every demographic due to not only its prevalence but also its dramatic rise. And although a causal relationship has yet to be formally studied, it seems that the more often a person uses the internet or social networking sites, the more likely it is that person will display symptoms of depression, or vice versa. Therefore, we should all take precautionary measures against social media depression. As the studies on pluralistic ignorance and alcohol suggest, perhaps by making the public aware of emotional pluralistic ignorance, the phenomenon itself will be countered. In short, if you decide to continue using social networking sites and if, when you’re scrolling through your “Friend List” or “Status Update Feed,” you begin to have negative emotions, then sit back, relax, rewind, and most importantly, remember that you’re not alone in your emotional difficulties.