New Efforts Essential to Stem Tide of Depression Triggered by Social Media

The July 17, 2019, Senate Banking hearings[1] involving Facebook and seemingly unrelated articles by CNN and the Los Angeles Times highlight a critical aspect of social media and online technology that goes underreported. The stories highlight the growing awareness of the systemic, negative impact of social media and online engagement on mental health and well-being.

In an op-ed by Varun Soni, USC’s Dean of Religious Life, Dean Soni highlighted the rapid increase in mental health issues on campus. Dean Soni identified this as a loneliness epidemic, triggering depression, suicide ideation and other mental health issues. These mental health concerns are rampant across all colleges and universities, driving down graduation rates and increasing risk of suicide.

Dean Soni Wrote:

The most recent Healthy Minds Survey, an annual report on mental health on college and university campuses, found that one-third of undergraduate students in the United States wrestle with some kind of mental health issue, while more than 10% struggle with thoughts of suicide. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s large annual survey of college freshmen has noted a marked and steady downward trend in the self-reported emotional health of students along with a large uptick in self-reported feelings of being overwhelmed.

Separately, A new study in JAMA Pediatrics reports depressive symptoms increase directly for every hour a minor spends time on social media or watching television. “To our knowledge, the present study is the first to present a developmental analysis of variations in depression and various types of screen time,” the authors explained. Of course, there is an important distinction between correlations and direct causal links, but parents and educators see the cause and effect time and again.

The data continue to accumulate in study after study. In a report published by the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, there was a 30% increase in the number of students using visitors centers during the six-year period ending in 2015. The report noted that students seeking help were likely students who had attempted suicide or engaged in self-harm.

In a 2017 survey conducted by the American College Health Association, of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools, nearly 40% of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function, and 61% of students said they had “felt overwhelming anxiety.”

The data mounts. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “roughly 45 percent of the students whom UCLA has screened since January 2017 have been identified with at least mild levels of depression or anxiety,” quoting Michelle G. Craske, director of the university’s Anxiety and Depression Research Center and a member of the UCLA team assessing wellness.

These are generally correlational studies, but the insidious role of social media may be readily diagnosed. First and foremost, screen time replaces face-to-face interactions. It reduces the time students of all ages (as well as adults) spend socializing and interacting with each other. As the number of social interactions decreases, it makes each live social interaction a bit more important. The stakes for each social interaction increase and so does the anxiety level. As the number of social interactions declines significantly, it transforms what was normal social engagement to the level of a public-speaking experience – one of the most anxiety-inducing activities know to society.

Second, the Social Media Feed Effect means that many posts by friends and friends of friends highlight the best aspects of the person’s year – birthdays, special concert tickets, engagements, and similar joyous occasions. No person’s average day can possibly compete with the quality of the lives highlighted in one’s feed. Logically, everyone knows that this is not a representative sample of a person’s actual day, but depression is not logical; it is emotional. These feelings impact the public on a fundamental level. Humans are social animals and reading the boastosphere lead the average person to be saddened by the nature of their average existence. For lonely and isolated individuals, the risk is greater.

Third, much of the online content that is not filled with personal milestones is filled with outrage, anger, and angst at the state of the world. To read the worst of this content is to feel the world is coming to an end, perhaps in days. AI will take all jobs, all continents will be under the sea, the countdown to nuclear war has started, and plague will release a new generation of inoculation-resistant zombies. This may be hyperbole, but the collective effect can be overwhelming for those unable to unplug.

Given the triple whammy of isolation, being left behind, and facing a dying world, it is no wonder that the generation raised on networked devices is seeing record levels of mental health problems. To the extent this sounds alarmist or a modern riff once raised about television, that may be a fair criticism, but it ignores the power of online media. Television was somewhat problematic, but it does not have nearly the number of negative attributes of social media. Television content was focused on mass media and strove for blandness. The isolationistic, echo-chamber nature of social media reaches further and is used more. The ubiquity of mobile devices (and continued expansion of monitors into every conceivable public space) greatly expands the exposure and opportunity for harm.

In the Senate Hearings, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown likened Facebook to “a toddler who has gotten his hands on a book of matches.” Brown continued, “Facebook has burned down the house over and over and called every arson a learning experience.” Nowhere is this more true than with regard to the service’s core function on mental health.

The entire P-20 community – from elementary schools through universities – must become much more intentional to add mandatory, low-stakes social interaction into the daily routine. After school arts and sports programs are essential, but insufficient. Group work, outings, experiential learning and many more efforts are needed to build an inoculation against the isolation of social media. The AMA and public health organizations need to provide real guidelines to reduce reliance on social media. And the public needs to understand the mental health epidemic beginning to emerge on college campuses and take the steps needed to reverse the trend and help those struggling with loneliness, isolation, depression, and suicide.

This is an epidemic. The public must begin to recognize if for what it is.


[1] The hearings actually focus on the creation of a blockchain-based digital currency. “THE COMMITTEE ON BANKING, HOUSING, AND URBAN AFFAIRS will meet in OPEN SESSION to conduct a hearing entitled, “Examining Facebook’s Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations.” The witness will be Mr. David A. Marcus, Head of Calibra, Facebook.” But hearings tend to wander.

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