This could be you. You’re at work. You have a few moments free. You reach for your phone to check on the Facebook post you made earlier that day and you get a little rush as you notice there are 15 likes and a couple comments. You think to yourself, “my friends think I’m funny!” You enjoy this moment so much that the rest of the day you keep checking your phone to see if more likes or comments appear.
But when the likes slow down or stop coming, you grow disappointed. You wonder why more people didn’t like your post. Maybe they don’t like you! You start to think about how to get more attention online. You no longer feel happy, but you feel compelled to keep using Facebook.
If this is a familiar experience then you know about some of the benefits, and potential pitfalls, of using online social networking sites like Facebook. In moderation, social networking offers an opportunity to feel connected with friends and with the world. Yet studies show that we may be happier and healthier without it.
Over the last few years, several studies have emerged linking social media use to poor mental health among children and adults. A 2012 study revealed a connection between online social networking and depression among high school students. The following year, a study concluded that the more time college students spent on Facebook the less happy and satisfied they were. The latest report reveals that children and adolescents who spent two or more hours a day engaging on social networking sites were more likely to report psychological distress and even suicidal thoughts. These are troubling results.
While no causality can be proven, it seems wise for adults and children to limit or reduce the amount of time spent using social media. Instead, they should seek out face-to-face contact or pick up the phone and have a conversation with a friend.
At the same time, it is important to realize the relationship between time on social media and poor mental health could work in the other direction. Researchers suggest that individuals who are already struggling with mental health issues may be more likely to use social media sites. Such individuals may be hoping to satisfy unmet needs such as connecting with and receiving support from others.
In other words, if someone with depression is using social media more than two hours a day, it should be considered that social media is not the cause but a sign of the depression.
This is useful information for parents and other supervising adults who may be monitoring an adolescent’s use of the Internet. If a child seems depressed, limiting access to social media may help but not resolve the underlying problem. It may also be advantageous to seek assistance from a mental health professional.
Frequent users of social media should also be aware of its addictive pull. Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is thought to affect over 8 percent of the population. People with IAD crave the dopamine rush they get from interactions on the Internet, including social media sites like Facebook. They become distraught when they are unable to access the Internet, their work or school performance is negatively impacted and their relationships suffer.
While an “addiction to the Internet” might seem like something to joke about, brain scans of people with IAD look very similar to those with addictions to alcohol, cocaine and heroin.
Taken as a whole, there are many reasons for us to take a balanced approach to online social networking. While virtual connections can serve a role in our social lives, we still need face-to-face interactions with people in order to be truly healthy and satisfied.
Originally published as “Social media could impact mental health” on September 20, 2015. The column Mind Matters is a regular column of the Niagara Gazette and Lockport Union-Sun Journal. Re-printed by permission.
Pamela Szalay is the Director of Community Education at the Mental Health Association in Niagara County, Inc. in Lockport, NY and provides educational presentations and workshops on mental health topics for the community. You can reach her by email.