Can spending time on social networking sites like Facebook lead to depression?

There's no question that Facebook is popular given its 1.23 billion active users in countries around the world. With status updates, chatrooms, personal messaging, and online games, Facebook seems to be a perfect social tool for staying in contact with friends and family members without ever needing to leave the house. So why do so many Facebook users report feeling depressed and lonely?  

A new review article published in Review of General Psychology explores some of the factors that can lead to Facebook depression. Written by Charlotte Rosalind Blease at University College Dublin, her article provides an overview of research into the behavioural impact of social media sites such as Facebook. She also examines how different theories of evolutionary psychology can help to explain why Facebook depression can occur.  

To give you an idea about how common Facebook depression can be, one of the studies reported by Blease found that 25 percent of college students with Facebook accounts admit to feeling depressed at times. Statements such as "Having a bad day. Sometimes I just wonder what it’s all about” are hardly uncommon. Mostly intended as a form of therapy, these statements encourage friends to express their concern and provide helpful advice (assuming any friends reply).

From the very beginning of the Internet age, researchers have been investigating the link between spending time online and emotional well-being. According to the first HomeNet study in 1998, there was a statistically significant relationship between Internet use and depression though the actual cause of that link remains open to debate. The study authors originally argued that Internet use actually causes depression due to replacing strong off-line relationships with "poorer quality social relationships" online, something they dubbed the "Internet paradox" since social technology intended to make people less isolated apparently reduced well-being.  

Not surprisingly, the HomeNet study came under fire by later researchers who argued that there was no way to prove that spending time online causes depression. Critics also questioned why the authors assumed that online social interactions were not as fulfilling as interacting with people face-to-face. It likely says something about how popular social media has become that the authors of  the original HomeNet study reported in a later study that the negative effects of Internet use have since "dissipated" and that spending time online is less likely to cause problems.

So, why has "Facebook depression" become such a common theme? As Charlotte Blease points out, evolutionary psychology suggests that depression can be viewed as a way of adapting to social problems we may encounter in our lives. By forcing us to "step back" and ruminate (or brood) about how people see us, we can take the time to work out solutions that might help us in future. 

One potential cause for depression involves the extremely negative comments that some Facebook users may leave behind. This form of "cyberbullying" is far too common and can lead to emotional distress given the kind of language used. While Facebook has implemented safeguards to protect users from abuse, including "unfriending" or blocking individual attackers, it may not be enough considering how easy it is to set up fake profiles. For some users, especially females, there may be no alternative but to abandon social media altogether or, at least, to step back and spend less time online.   

There can also be a more subtle reason for experiencing Facebook depression. Going online and checking on the status of our various Facebook friends (many of whom we have never met in real life) often forces us to deal with people who are either a) more successful than we are, or b) more attractive than we are. Whether or not this is actually the case, Facebook users may tend to regard themselves as "competing" with their various Facebook friends and can often feel inadequate as a result. 

Status updates in which friends announce significant achievements or display how successful they are are more likely to attract attention. Facebook users are also more likely to pay attention to profiles that are already popular (including ones that have a large number of Facebook friends, "likes" or which attract numerous comments). Other factors such as physical attractiveness may also make some profiles more popular than others, especially if the user is an attractive female.

Charlotte Blease suggests that some individuals may be more prone to Facebook depression depending on:

  1. How many Facebook friends they have.  
  2. How much time they spend reading updates from this wide circle of friends.
  3. How frequently they read these updates.
  4. How many of these updates contain content that suggests bragging.

The more exposure users have to evidence of Facebook friends who are doing better than they are (whether in the form of photo galleries, status updates, etc.), the more opportunity users have to evaluate themselves negatively. Since most Facebook users are alone when they go online (even if they're at work), the social impact of this kind of negative self-evaluation can be even stronger.   

There is also the question of why many users spend so much time online. People who are already mildly depressed or feeling socially isolated may log onto Facebook as a way of connecting with others or to relieve their own sense of sadness. Unfortunately, being subjected to repeated evidence that other people have more interesting lives often has the opposite effect.  

Along with Facebook depression, "Facebook envy" may kick in when users see other people their own age who appear to have achieved more or have more friends. This may be more common for users with only a small circle of friends but with whom they are more likely to identify themselves. Though the "triggers" for Facebook envy may be different than for Facebook depression, they can lead to users judging themselves more harshly and feeling that they have failed to accomplish enough in life. There can also be more immediate triggers, such as having friend requests being declined (especially if it's by someone whose friendship you particularly value). 

So, how big a problem is Facebook depression? More research is certainly needed to understand how online social interactions can contribute to problems with emotional well-being. It is likely also important to understand the different reasons people may have for logging onto Facebook, whether as a way of staying in contact with friends they already have or to help lonely people overcome their own sense of isolation.  

For people who are already prone to depression, even the mild depression caused by spending time on Facebook can have serious consequences. With adolescents in particular, the impact of depression can be especially great since they are still learning to handle their own emotions. Research shows that a single episode of depression during adolescence can quintuple the risk of developing more serious depression later in life. 

Then again, there is the issue of suicide and whether Facebook depression can boost the risk of users harming themselves. To help protect users, Facebook has implemented special safeguards including warning messages allowing for people to report any suicidal messages they happen to read. A suicide-prevention help page providing information on contacting a suicide hotline is also provided. 

Being more aware of potential risks such as Facebook depression or envy can make it easier for users to avoid problems as they develop.     

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