Social Media Depression and "Social Defeat"

Problematic social media use can prompt feelings of inferiority and defeat.

Posted Dec 22, 2020

Social Media Depression
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Social media depression is not a formal diagnostic category. But it is an experience familiar to many people in the digital age. Being depressed takes away from general happiness in life. If we find that our social media use is making us depressed, we've got good reason to get to the root of the issue.

To really understand what is going on with social media depression, we need to start by asking: why do people become depressed in the first place? 

Beyond the "Chemical Imbalance" Theory of Depression

Many people think the answer is obvious: "People become depressed because they have chemical imbalances in their brains." 

The so-called "chemical imbalance" theory of depression has been widely discussed in popular media. But it has actually never gained acceptance among experts. Experts believe that a complex "bio-psycho-social" model, rather than a simple chemical imbalance theory, best explains depression. There are many causes that all come together to make someone depressed.

Mental Illness and Evolution

A scientific understanding of depression should also take into account recent research on the evolutionary basis of mental illness. From an evolutionary point of view, some of the symptoms we commonly associate with mental illness may be adaptations. This means that they may confer certain advantages for us and other animals.

This is not as strange as it can sound at first. There are clearly advantages to other distressing states we can experience, like physical pain.

Although physical pain is distressing, it can be a good thing when it is adaptive. When functioning properly, pain signals that there is something wrong with our bodies. This allows us to do something to try to fix what is wrong before things get worse. It makes sense that we evolved to be able to experience physical pain.

In a similar way, the ability to experience depression may be adaptive in certain situations. 

The Social Defeat Model of Depression

One influential evolutionary model of depression is the "social defeat" model. Researchers have observed the ways in which different species of animals cope with situations of conflict. In doing this, researchers have focused on the ways that animals react if they suffer social defeats, losing rank in social conflicts.

In these cases, animals may become subordinates unable to escape being harassed or threatened by more dominant animals. Human beings and other animals have been observed to respond in these situations by behaving in depressed-like ways.

The social defeat model of depression is not the only evolutionary model, and different models may help to explain different kinds of depression. But the social defeat model provides a plausible explanation of what is going on in these situations of conflict.

According to the model, becoming depressed in these situations can be adaptive. First, a depressive response can "down-regulate" the animal or person's goals and behavior so that they do not challenge dominants in ways that could incite an attack. Second, becoming depressed can affect the way the dominant animal or person perceives the subordinate. They may be more likely to perceive the subordinate as inhibited and non-threatening, and so not a threat.

The social defeat model of depression helps to explain an important aspect of depression in human beings. This is the way that depression very often goes hand-in-hand with low self-esteem and a tendency to think of others as rejecting and looking down on the person who is depressed.

Obviously, not everyone who suffers social defeats will become depressed. The difference seems to come down to how the person experiences the defeat — their subjective experience. 

Research on how people fare after being tortured indicates that those who come to perceive themselves as giving up their autonomy, will, and identity as a result of the torture are most likely to become depressed.

But those who retain a solid sense of themselves and who may even feel a moral superiority to their torturers are less likely to become depressed. Some research indicates that whether a person subjectively experiences defeat is an even better predictor of depression than whether they feel hopeless.

Social Media Depression and Social Comparison

The research so far on social media use and depression yields mixed results. Researchers are continuing to understand the complex factors involved. 

What research does suggest is that certain ways of using social media are correlated with depression. For example, research on Facebook use has found that this can encourage unfavorable social comparisons and envy which go together with depressed mood. 

The social defeat model of depression can help us to think about what might be happening here. Social media provides unparalleled opportunities for experiences of social defeat, including perceived loss of status. We are invited constantly to compare ourselves to others. The emphasis is on friend counts and highly selective approaches to self-presentation which highlight positive attributes. We are nudged towards attending to the ways in which others are impressive. In such an environment, we can start to perceive ourselves as inferior. We can start to believe that others are looking down on us.

When this happens, an evolved automatic reaction could kick in without our being aware that this is happening. As it lowers our mood, it down-regulates our behavior and goals in ways characteristic of depression. The evolutionary function would be to get us to keep a low profile so that we don't end up challenging others we experience as dominant and they are less likely to view us as posing a threat.

The cycle of depression could kick in with its characteristic "self-harassment." This the way that depressed people often seem compelled to attack themselves with highly self-critical self-talk.

Preventing and Overcoming Social Media Depression

We don't live in the kind of ancestral environments in which these reactions to social defeat are hypothesized to have evolved. But we remain hard-wired through evolution to respond in the ways that were once adaptive.

Those who are struggling with depression caused by their social media use can benefit by disrupting patterns of self-harassment. They can do this by increasing awareness of their self-punishing thoughts. They can also work towards reframing and disputing these thoughts.

Whether depressed or not, we can all benefit by being sure we are not tricking ourselves into believing that using social media provides the best path to securing our enjoyment in life. This can make us freer to explore additional ways to foster our longer-term happiness.

Using social media wisely means seeing through the enthusiasm and illusions it generates.

The good news is that many people are becoming more aware of the way social media affects us. This has been possible because of increasing public debate and discussion.

Seeing social media for what it is involves recognizing that, although it certainly brings some benefits to our lives, it is designed above all to keep us using it. It is designed to do this even when our use negatively affects our moods.