Depression: Does social media make it worse?

anxiety children children and technology depression family technology Feb 13, 2019

by Lily Kamp and Sophia Ruan Gushée


In 2019, social media is among the greatest constants in of our lives. We wake up and we lie in bed, responding to notifications and subsequently scrolling and scrolling before we’ve even brushed our teeth. The “mindless scroll,” as it is popularly designated, continues throughout the day—on the train or bus to work, during lunch and bathroom breaks, and at various other times until we go to bed, when we again check our feeds before we sleep.

Even if you aren't an avid social media user, chances are that at least one of your loved ones is: platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are now used by one in four people worldwide. The rise of social media is oft-discussed in the news, and perhaps in daily conversation, because of its detriment to our privacy and security. 

Less discussed, alarmingly, is its role in conjunction with another drastically rising phenomenon in modern society: depression.


A Bit on Depression 

The World Health Organization designates depression as a “common mental disorder,” and cites that it is the leading cause of disability today, with more than 300 million people affected globally. Depression affects more women than men. At worst, it can lead to suicide.

Depression is a result of the intricate interaction of various social, psychological and biological factors, meaning all cases of depression are unique. Though depression does not have a single root cause, it is psychologically and pharmacologically treatable. (Currently, fewer than half of those affected are receiving treatment.)

Recently, there has been a spike in depression and similar mental disorders among the younger generation. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health found that the top three diagnoses on campus are, in order: anxiety, depression, and stress. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 3 million adolescents ages 12 to 17 have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.


Our Most Vulnerable Population: Children

As social media has forever changed communication and collaboration through the world, it has also forever changed— and increased—social and psychological contributors to depression.

Young people are extremely savvy when it comes to social media, but they also have a harder time removing themselves from it. They were born into—and/or brought up in— a social media boom. In fact, many view joining and engaging with social media as a compulsory rite of passage rather than a pleasurable activity. According to a 2015 study by Common Sense Media, only 36% of teens reported actually enjoying using social media, even though 91% of 16-24-year-olds regularly use the internet for social networking.

Entirely immersed in it, they are disproportionately susceptible to the emotions that commonly evoked by social media. Of these emotions, studies show that feelings of isolation, inadequacy, and generalized depression prevail as we scroll.


Why does social media evoke negative emotions?

  • We compare ourselves and our lives to what we see online. Feelings of inadequacy surge when we compare ourselves with those we see on our socials, BUT we are making hugely unfair comparisons! No one posts that they are stressed about a deadline or pictures of their messy living room to their social networks. People post their highlights reel—their ultra-edited brightest moments. And we are comparing our behind-the-scenes, everyday unfiltered moments with their best-of. (Yes, this has been happening for some time with TV and celebrity, but now it’s our peers too; it’s become personal.) 
  • We have attached personal and emotional value to the number of likes, comments, and shares our posts receive. It has become social currency. In marketing, this is referred to as the “value of attention,” as companies sell their products, BUT, in social media culture, we are selling ourselves. Where companies may discontinue or alter a product that isn’t being bought, we may take personally and are gravely affected by lost followers and posts that aren't shown affection.
  • Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) dictates our social media dependency. A 2013 University of Ottawa study found 7 out of 10 students would get rid of their social networking accounts were it not for fear of being left “out of the loop.” A previously mentioned Common Sense Media study found that most teens don’t even really like being on social media. But we are so conditioned to rely on it that we cannot abstain entirely. Social media has been described by scientists as being more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. We receive dopamine from likes and follows, and we get anxious about the mere idea of losing access to it. These behaviors parallel that of substance addiction, which is also linked to depression.
  • Cyberbullying can be traumatizing, and is becoming increasingly normalized. 43% of adults on social media have experienced online harassment of some kind. Where cyberbullying is the most well-known of the four potentially depressing factors discussed here, it is perpetually shifting forms. From political Facebook arguments to tagging cruel instagram memes, cyberbullying is common among adults and children alike and remains prevalent as ever.


Should I disengage from social media?

No! Social media can be great! It connects people from around the world and gives us a platform to stay in touch with friends and family. And social media will probably be integrated in our culture for a while.

Instead, use social media mindfully, and encourage your friends and family to do so as well!


4 tips on how to use social media more mindfully!

Be aware of (and constantly remind yourself and others) of the factors listed above. Awareness is powerful and can give one perspective in times of stress.

  1. Assess your reactions during and after your social media use. Monitor engagement with social media as you would a diet. After a few minutes or an hour of using social media, ask, “How did that make me feel?” If the answer is anything other than, “Great,” assess why.
  2. Filter your online universe to avoid exposures that don't lift you up. Use that assessment to unfollow anyone or anything that is making you feel bad. If it is the platform in general, try to slowly wean yourself off of it,
  3. Model the social media behavior you want to see. Present yourself on social media as you hope others present themselves to you. If you feel bad when you see edited photos that you are tempted to compare yourself to, don’t post edited photos as well. Or do, but be transparent about it. 
  4. Be considerate. Before posting something, ask yourself if it might make others feel bad. If you or a group of friends are having a great time at a party, will posting a picture make your other friends feel bad about not being invited? While it's not necessarily wrong to post these types of pictures, it's a good question to wonder before you post. Maybe these choices influence what comes back around to you...


In Summary

Depression is a serious, pervasive issue that most of us will be affected by. While the contributing factors to depression are multifactorial, one area that deserves an "edit" is social media use. More mindful use of social media may help decrease triggers of depression, or what feeds into depression. More mindful use of social media offers many other benefits too, like enhanced presence, more quality connections, and reduced EMF exposures!

Through my desire to avoid my family's unnecessary EMF exposures, I have noticed that my practices to reduce EMF exposures also naturally help manage social media use. For more articles related to this, check out my free Technology Guide.


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Ruan Living simplifies a nontoxic lifestyle through its Practical Nontoxic Living podcast, free detox workshops, online D-Tox Academy, and transformative 40-Day Home Detox. It aims to help you avoid toxic chemicals, heavy metals, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) from what you buy, own, and do— without compromising your joy and convenience. Ruan was founded by Sophia Ruan Gushée, author of the bestselling critically acclaimed book A to Z of D-Toxing: The Ultimate Guide to Reducing Your Toxic Exposures and several detox workbooks. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Business School, Sophia has served on the Brown University School of Public Health Advisory Council and Well+Good Council. A popular nontoxic living speaker, consultant, and teacher, Sophia lives in New York City with her husband and three daughters. Her passion for empowering others to enjoy nontoxic living began with the birth of her first daughter in 2007. Everything she creates is a love letter to her children and for the healthiest, brightest future possible. You can learn more here: Sophia’s Impact.


This article is for informational purposes only. This information is provided “as is” without warranty.

It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. We do not offer medical advice, course of treatment, diagnosis, or any other opinion on your conditions or treatment options. To the extent that this article features the advice of physicians or medical practitioners, the views expressed are the views of the cited expert and do not necessarily represent the views of Ruan Living.

In no event will Sophia Ruan Gushee or Ruan Living be liable for any damages or loss of any kind resulting from the use of this website. Anyone relying upon or making use of the information on this website does so at his or her own risk.

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