When I googled “how many people are on Facebook?”, the question popped up in my search prompter before I could even finish writing it. That goes to show how central this social media site and others have become in our daily lives. The answer, in case you were wondering, is 500 million. MILLION. And 50% of those users log into the site at least once per day. That is 250 million people connecting talking to each other, looking at photos, reading status updates and “check-ins” every day. With so much access to our personal lives, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to create boundaries with information (people can track you almost anywhere through social media sites) and decide how much is “too much” to open up about ourselves online. I have written blog posts before about limiting what we say online (“when to open up and when to shut up”) and about how influential websites can be on our mental health (such as my blog about the influence of YouTube on cutting behaviors).
Now, there is a new study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics and published in the April issue of Pediatrics magazine that states that social media sites like Facebook can increase teenagers’ levels of depression. Doctors are not sure if this increase in depression is an extension of a depression that might already be experienced or if it is a new form of the mental health condition that is developed when teens obsess over online media sites. Teenagers who might already be dealing with issues surrounding self-esteem can easily log into the website and be faced with photos, information, and status updates by peers that can “make us feel like we don’t measure up”. To me, this is a viral extension of the popularity contests that we all enter into in middle and high school, where being popular and “cool” (and especially when it concerns dressing and looking a certain way) is of utmost importance for our happiness level.
What is most concerning to me is that the online world tends to be a place where people can say whatever they want to and (usually) avoid reprecussions that might have been enforced in the real world. Online bullying, online websites and videos that condone behaviors that are unhealthy and demeaning, and other types of online networking can make it easier to be vicious and disrespectful to others. This type of harrassment “in the second degree” compounded by the fact that what we see and read online is not necessarily always the reality, can strongly influence our feelings of self-esteem and self-concept. Do you know what it feels like to be having a challenging day and then to log onto Facebook and see a steady stream of a friend’s status updates that are chipper, happy, and which can seem to make your day even worse? How about logging into Facebook while working hard to pay your bills and you see photos of a friend’s expensive new car or trip around the world? These types of factors can make us feel lazy, boring, and like we are not “good enough”. Don’t even get me started on the realm of tracking old friends and partners and finding photos of them laughing with new partners or a new group of friends. It makes me wonder about the appeal of online sites sometimes, and I ponder the obsession we 500 million users have and can’t seem to shake (myself admittedly being one of them). To add to the chaos, many of those persuasive photos and updates might not even be true and may be a way for the poster to try to increase his or her own self-esteem by putting on a false reality to the online world. Phew — keeping track of all of this is exhausting! As Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a Boston-area peditrician states, this type of social comparison can be “more painful than sitting alone in a crowded cafeteria at school and that Facebook creates a skewed view of what’s really going on.”
Social media sites do not just influence that self-esteem and levels of depression of only teenagers (though teenagers might have emotional states that are more easily influenced by peer interaction than other age groups). I believe that we all have experienced some of the feelings that this study is talking about. Whether you are a child first experiencing the seemingly limitless excitement of the online world or whether you are an adult in your 60s who is reconnecting with old friends and schoolmates that you have not heard from in many years, you might understand the issue of not knowing how to limit the impact of social media sites on our personal mental health.
While doctors do state that many factors of social networking is healthy and productive, it can “sometimes go to far and turn into a popularity and comparison contest”. Doctors also assure that just because you are on Facebook does not mean that you will get depressed. As research is still being conducted, we do not know the full extent of the correlation between depression and social media sites and clinicians currently believe that the concern mostly occurs with those who already have some feelings of depression and low self-esteem and whose symptoms increase through repeated use of social networking sites. Whatever the cause or conditions, this issue is certainly of serious concern and will continue to be so as our world becomes more reliant on online communication and viral influence.