Does Facebook Trigger Depression in Teens?

Facebook Depression in Teens

Recently, news media were overwhelmed with warnings about “Facebook depression” in children and teens. The phrase originated in a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) detailing the potential problems associated with social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Myspace), gaming sites, virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life), YouTube, and blogs.

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Facebook depression, according to the AAP report, may result if, for example, young users see status updates, wall posts, and photos that make them feel unpopular. Social media sites may have greater psychosocial impact on teens with low self-esteem or who are already otherwise troubled. The report recommended that psychologists help families better understand the potential harms of social networking sites and encourage parents to monitor Internet usage and talk to their kids about cyberbullying, sexting, and exposure to social media content that could negatively affect mental health.

The AAP report has generated controversy among other researchers and mental health professionals who believe the studies cited in the report were inaccurately interpreted and other studies supporting the benefits of social networking sites, such as relationship formation or online therapy, were not considered. The ongoing debate regarding the report has brought to light the potential positive and negative aspects of social networking sites for children and teens who now spend a substantial amount of time online and whose communication with their peers relies heavily on social media.

“Social media is a tool; it cannot in and of itself ‘cause’ a medical illness,” says Megan Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, an assistant professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health. In March, Moreno and colleagues published a study in Depression and Anxiety that evaluated college students’ Facebook comments for signs of depression. Moreno has also provided comments to several media outlets covering the Facebook depression issue.

Some forms of media may contribute to feelings of depression for those who are already depressed, says Moreno. According to the Media Practice Model, developed by Steele and Brown in 1995, adolescents choose and interact with media based on who they are or who they want to be at a particular moment.

“If an adolescent is experiencing feelings of depression and seeks out media to match those feelings of depression, then yes, Facebook and other social media can contribute to feelings of depression,” Moreno explains.

Facebook and other social media may contribute to depression in three ways—bullying, comparison with others, and influencing self-worth, says Brent L. Fletcher, LCSW, an outpatient mental health therapist who works with children aged 5 and older in individual and family therapy and was recently interviewed by Missouri TV and radio concerning Facebook and depression.

“Bullying can occur when ‘friends’ post mean or derogatory statements about others or upload unflattering photos and make negative comments about them,” says Fletcher.

Facebook friends’ lists and status postings can have a detrimental effect when children or teens begin comparing themselves with others on Facebook and find themselves lacking. Thought processes, such as “They have x number of friends and I don’t” or “They have the relationship status I want or the life I want,” can lead to low self-esteem, Fletcher says.

Concerning self-worth, Fletcher explains, “The child or teen may think, ‘What if I post something and nobody responds to it or clicks the “Like” button on it.’ Consequently, it is easy for them to become depressed when they are getting their sense of self-worth from the approval of others on social networking sites.”

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Caution Warranted

While bullying and peer pressure were common problems for children and teens well before the advent of the Internet, social networking sites have made it impossible for kids to escape from these problems when not in outside of school. Internet access at home and on cell phones can expose an adolescent to these issues all day long—and even all night.

In his practice, Fletcher has observed a trend—children and teens experiencing sleep deprivation because they use their phone or computer at all hours. Technology has made it easy to access Facebook anytime, he says, and this can have a detrimental effect on children’s psychosocial health.

Moreno cautions, though, not to view these potentially negative aspects as a direct causative relationship between Facebook and other social media and depression. Other evidence, including her own research, suggests Facebook can actually help identify those at risk for depression. “Our studies have found that adolescents often disclose feelings of depression on Facebook,” she says.

Previous research has found that people may be more likely to open up or report feelings online vs. in person. “It is possible that if a teen displayed depression symptoms online, he or she may receive a rapid response of support online from friends, which may help that teen to feel supported,” she says.

Fletcher agrees, adding that while Facebook and other social media can amplify bullying, it can also increase the likelihood that a troubled child or teen will receive much-needed help from friends and family.

According to Moreno’s study, which evaluated the status updates of 200 college students, despite the potential for stigma associated with reporting depression, almost one-quarter of publicly available Facebook profiles displayed one or more references to depression symptoms that met DSM criteria. Students were more likely to reference depression on their Facebook profiles if they averaged at least one comment from their friends on status postings that disclosed symptoms related to depression.

“This finding suggests that Facebook may be a venue in which today’s adolescents feel safe displaying depression or seeking support from others,” Moreno says. She and her colleagues have suggested that social networking sites could be an innovative method for addressing the stigma currently associated with mental health conditions or for mental health professionals to identify children and teens at risk of depression.

“From a public health perspective, it is possible that targeted online advertisements could be developed to promote therapy or illustrate resources to help teens who display symptoms of more severe depression,” she says.

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More Facebook Friends – Higher the Stress is

The more friends a teenager has on Facebook, the more stressed they are likely to be, which may increase their future risk for depression. This is according to a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Researchers say the more Facebook friends a teenager has, the higher their stress levels are likely to be.
Social media use among teenagers has grown rapidly in recent years. According to a 2012 study from Pew Research Center, around 81% of teenagers aged 12-17 who are active online use some form of social media, and 71% of them use Facebook.

While such sites can help people stay connected, numerous studies have suggested their use may have negative health implications, particularly for adolescents.

Earlier this year, a study was released, suggesting social media pressure in teenagers may lead to anxiety and depression. Now, study leader Prof. Sonia Lupien, of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Montreal in Canada, and colleagues find that the number of friends teenagers have on Facebook may impact stress levels - potentially influencing their later-life depression risk.

To reach their findings, the team recruited 88 teenagers aged 12-17 - 41 boys and 47 girls. They asked them about their Facebook behavior, including how often they used the social media site, how many friends they had on the site, their self-promoting behavior and supporting behavior toward Facebook friends - such as "liking" the posts of others.

In addition, participants were asked to provide four samples of cortisol - a hormone released in response to stress - four times a day for 2 consecutive days.

Compared with teenagers who had fewer than 300 Facebook friends, those who had more than 300 friends on the social media site had higher cortisol levels. "We can therefore imagine that those who have 1,000 or 2,000 friends on Facebook may be subjected to even greater stress," notes Prof. Lupien.

The researchers point out that participants' heightened stress levels were not purely down to Facebook; other external factors played a part. However, they estimated that Facebook was responsible for around 8% of increased cortisol levels. The researchers also identified a reduction in cortisol levels among teenagers who supported friends on the social media site by "liking" their posts or sending them encouraging words.

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Higher cortisol levels in teens may indicate future depression risk

Prof. Lupien and her team say that, while they did not observe any symptoms of depression among participants, their findings suggest that teenagers with a higher number of Facebook friends may be at greater future depression risk.

"[...] Adolescents who present high stress hormone levels do not become depressed immediately; it can occur later on," explains Prof. Lupien. "Some studies have shown that it may take 11 years before the onset of severe depression in children who consistently had high cortisol levels."

The authors say further research is warranted to determine whether their findings can be replicated in children and adults who use Facebook.

"Developmental analysis could also reveal whether virtual stress is indeed 'getting over the screen and under the skin' to modulate neurobiological processes related to adaptation," adds Prof. Lupien.

Social media: 'no direct association' with stress

Contrary to the new research, reviewed above, another study earlier this year strongly suggested social media use is NOT directly associated with stress. The researches claim that the relationship between stress and social media use is indirect. It is the social uses of digital technologies, and the way they increase awareness of distressing events in others' lives, that can result in users feeling more stress.
Pew is a Washington DC-based nonpartisan think tank. The aim of their research was to explore whether the use of social media, mobile phones and the Internet is associated with higher levels of stress.

The study consisted of a phone survey in English and Spanish and included 2,013 adults. The participants were asked about the extent to which they feel stress in their lives, using an established scale of stress called the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). The scale is based on answers to 10 questions that assess whether a person feels that their life is overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable.

PSS can be viewed as an assessment of the risk that people face for psychological disorders related to stress, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease and susceptibility to infectious diseases.

"Everything's all fine and dandy" until something unfortunate happens in the lives of people you care about, says Keith Hampton, a professor of information at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.

There are various factors that are known to make people feel more stress, such as the uncertainty of employment and the absence of a friend or partner with whom to confide. Previous studies have also found that awareness of stressful events in the lives of others is a major contributor to people's assessment of their own stress levels. An analysis of survey responses produced two significant findings that illustrate the complex interplay of digital technology and stress:
* Overall, frequent Internet and social media users do not have higher levels of stress
* There are circumstances under which the social use of digital technology increases awareness of stressful events in the lives of others. Especially for women, this greater awareness is tied to higher levels of stress and has been called "the cost of caring."

This study suggests that the information transferred through social media translates into awareness of all kinds of extra things, including an awareness of undesirable events in the lives of family, friends and acquaintances. Whether as a result of social media, or more traditional forms of interaction, awareness of undesirable events in others' lives generates increasing psychological stress, and with it, higher risk for the physical and psychological problems that often accompany stress.

Opting out of social media is not necessarily considered a better option. Research shows that people who do not have an online presence tend to be the most disconnected Americans. "They have fewer close relationships, they have less diverse relationships, they are less connected to their communities," Hampton concludes.

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Threat or Opportunity

Social media presence is associated with lifestyle featured with higher exposure to the virtual communication world full of dangers and opportunities. It is not good or bad by itself. It represents an entire different playfield, opening the World, but making the participant more vulnerable to all its trends. Thus, the new safe behavior should be promoted for the teens, helping them to deal with the basic threats and potentially distressing factors, fostering virtual world survival skills.


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