When Social Media Sparks Depression

Can a negative experience on Facebook lead to mental health problems?

Posted Sep 21, 2016

Especially for adolescents and young adults, there are significant emotional risks associated with social media platforms, a new study reports. Virtual as online experiences may be, they have important—and often underrated—real-life consequences.

Since erupting on the scene back in 2004, the social media platform launched by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow Harvard classmates has grown to become the most widely-used application of its kind in the world   With more than 1.71 billion users around the world as of this year (about one-quarter of the total population worldwide), it seems safe to say that Facebook has become a way of life for hundreds of millions of people who log on each day.  

For young people especially, Facebook seems to have become a central part of how they communicate with the world.   Not because of the free exchange of news, selfies, and whatever viral memes happen to be popular at the given moment, but also for the social interactions it allows between people who may never meet in real life but can still be regarded as friends.   

Given the power that Facebook seems to have, it's probably not surprising that more and more anecdotes are emerging about the dark side of this kind of social contact.    Stories of cyberbullying, mean-spirited comments, cyberstalking, and misunderstandings seem rampant, especially for young females dealing with unwanted attention.   While Facebook's policies and the active policing of these policies try to curb the worst examples of this kind of abuse, the negative experiences many people describe can have a powerful impact in terms of low self-esteem, depression, and social anxiety.

A new study by public health researchers at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island highlights the role that negative Facebook experiences can have on depression.   The study, soon to be published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, looks at 264 young adults who been participating in the New England Family Study (NEFS) since they were adolescents.   The NEFS is a long-running research project looking at early genetic and environmental contributors to mental and physical health.   These participants were recruited so the researchers could compare how they were functioning before the introduction of Facebook to their current mental state. 

Along with being tested on the frequency, severity, and nature of the negative interpersonal experiences they have had, they were also given the Center for Epidemiological Studies Depression Scale to measure different depressive symptoms.   Other data, including daily Facebook use, depression as adolescents, parental mental health, sex, race or ethnicity, reported social support, daily Facebook use, average monthly income, educational attainment and employment, were also collected.

What the researchers found was that 82 percent of all participants reported at least one negative Facebook experience (NFE) overall and 55 percent reported one in the year before they took part in the study.  About 63 percent said they had four or more NFEs.  When compared to the 24 percent of participants reporting moderate-to-severe depression, overall risk of depression was 3.2 times greater in participants experiencing NFEs than those who had not.  These results were particularly impressive since other factors such as childhood mental health and socioeconomic status were controlled for in the study.

There were also significant differences in terms of the type and frequency of the negative Facebook experiences reported.  People reporting mean or bullying Facebook posts were 3.5 times more likely to develop depression while people receiving unwanted contacts (such as cyberstalking) were at 2.5 percent.  How frequently these NFEs occurred also made a difference.  People reporting four or more NFEs had a substantially higher risk of depression than people with few experiences. 

"This as close as you can get to answering the question: Do adverse experiences [on Facebook] cause depression?" said Stephen Buka, professor of epidemiology at Brown and one of the study authors.  "We knew how the participants were doing as kids before they had any Facebook use, then we saw what happened on Facebook, and then we saw how they were faring as young adults. It permits us to answer the chicken-and-egg problem: Which comes first -- adverse experiences on Facebook or depression, low self-esteem and the like?"

While more research is needed, these results highlight the emotional impact NFEs can have.   All online users, but especially adolescents and young adults, need to be aware of the emotional risks associated with social media platforms, particularly Facebook. 

Epidemiology research associate Samantha Rosenthal,who performed the research as part of her doctoral thesis at Brown, warns that far too many users don't take social media as seriously as they should.  "I think it's important that people take interactions on social media seriously and don't think of it as somehow less impactful because it's a virtual experience as opposed to an in-person experience," she said. "It's a different forum that has real emotional consequences."