Anxiety, Depression, and Snapchat – it’s Real
Social Media Use and its Impact on Mental Health
We are going to discuss social media use and its impact on mental health particular to children and adolescents. This is an extremely complex issue with many unanswered questions still being probed in the medical literature, but some components are becoming refined and supported as more research compiles. Know that I recognize that social media platforms have become an integrated part of many of our lives and can be a valuable and beneficial way to connect with others.
Social Media Psychological Ramifications Are Real and Are Happening Right Before Our Eyes
I practice Family Medicine and I see it in my practice. Not just the constant scrolling of patients and their counterparts in the office, but I see the anxiety and depression in our children in numbers I never thought I would see. I see middle, high school and college-aged kids who are struggling with anxiety and depression weekly.
This is indeed multifactorial, but I’ll speak to the impact of social media. A culture of safetyism, over-parenting, declining play, fragility and emotional reasoning are topics that, while of interest to me as a parent and medical professional are simply outside my scope from a medical perspective.
Depression is on the Rise, Especially in Students
Rates of anxiety and depression among college-aged students began to rise around 2011. This coincides with the first wave of “iGen” or kids who grew up with the internet in their pocket after the advent of the iPhone. This was shortly followed by social media applications, such as Facebook, Tumblr (remember Tumblr), etc.
In a 2016 survey from 139 colleges, half of students reported seeking psychological services for mental health issues. Additionally, 1 in 7 college-aged women thinks of themselves as having a psychological disorder (up from 1 in 18 less than a decade ago). Male rates have also doubled over the same period from roughly 2.5 percent to now above 6 percent. Over the last five years, teen anxiety, depression and suicide have increased along with social media use. Correlation does not determine causation, but let’s look a little deeper.
Why the Addiction
Social media use is built to get users addicted. This is not debatable. It is built to get users to use more and more and more. They even dare to refer to participants on their platforms as “users.” Now, where have I heard that term applied before in relation to addictions?
When you interact on social media and someone responds favorably to what you’ve posted, tweeted or snapped you get a hit of dopamine (also known as the neurotransmitter of pleasure). The very substance that leads to addiction. The more you post, the more dopamine you get and the more you get used to. What happens when you don’t get that hit of dopamine? The same thing that happens to drug users who miss their fix – you crash; your mood gets depressed or anxious or both.
Despite the rising rate of mental health disorders in the adolescent populations over the recent years the only two mental health disorders that have become more prevalent are anxiety and depression.
Females Are More at Risk
You know what else, social media affects females more. Across the board females who use social media with, few exceptions, report higher rates of anxiety and depression than males or those who don’t use social media or use it as often. Females in this age group tend to be more focused on inclusion and exclusion than males. Whereas a male is more prone to physical means to settle disagreement, females tend to be more relationally aggressive attacking one’s social status and relationships. What more efficient way to be relationally aggressive than a social media platform?
There’s also the comparison problem that social media presents. Imagine a teenage female scrolling through social media and she comes across a picture of her friends hanging out without her (Not unusual by the way, not everyone can be present at everything). Her friends look like they’re having fun. Instead of a dopamine hit, she gets FOMO (Fear of missing out), yes, it’s real. But that’s not all, through the power of “filters” her friends look much more attractive in the photo than they are in real life, more attractive than her. The comparison is instantaneous, it’s not real, but it is destructive.
Two Correlations with Depression & Suicide
Research has found two activities to correlate with depression and suicide activity:
- Electronic device use
- Watching television
The threshold seems to be 2 hours daily total between the two that leads to increased rates with each additional hour per day increasing rates.
What You Should Be Doing, Parents
The American Academy of Pediatrics has long recommended limiting screen time to less than 2 hours per day. The average screen time for children 8 – 18 continues to be on average well above this mark. The Academy has not made any official recommendations on limiting the use of social media other than:
- Have a discussion with your children about social media use
- Have phone-free time
- Limit use one hour before bed
- Adhere to the two-hour rule
Activities that Inversely Affect Depression
Alternatively, five activities have been found to have an inverse relationship with depression (the more time spent doing these activities, the less likely one is to have depression):
- Attending religious services
- Reading books or PRINT media
- In-person social interactions
- Doing homework.
If that doesn’t simplify the equation for you I’m not sure what will. If your child isn’t spending more time doing all of those 5 things than they do on a screen, then they’re at risk. Start adding, I’m guessing we have a lot of concerned parents out there. There has been evidence to suggest that middle-aged adolescents are at greater risk of harm than high school and college-aged students. Additionally, children who are considered “highly sociable” spending a lot of time with face-to-face interactions are less likely to experience the negative impact of social media use.
The American Academy of Family Physicians I don’t believe has made any official recommendation other than for physicians to familiarize themselves with social media platforms, yes, they want us to get on social media. I guess I’m failing them, which I’m ok with.
Social Media Pro
In summary; social media use, when used to connect can be beneficial, uplifting and supportive.
Social Media Con
However, when used through the lens of comparison, particularly by our children can contribute to negative mental health consequences including increased rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal activity.
Ideally, social media use would be stifled before the high school age as it has been shown that the greatest negative impact takes place in the middle school years. If you have kids in this age range, at least have a conversation about their use. Discuss both the amount of use and what they are using and they should know that those factors may be having a negative impact on their health. Dedicate certain times or events that are “phone-free” and encourage them to explore their feeling while using social media or after use to let them gauge how they feel.
Talk2Me, the project funded by the Western Missouri Medical Center Foundation, Compass Health Network, is available to our greater community and will allow individuals to communicate anonymously with master’s level trained professionals if they are experiencing a mental health crisis.
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About Western Missouri Medical Center
Western Missouri Medical Center (WMMC) is a fully-accredited acute care county medical center located in Warrensburg, MO. WMMC prides itself in emergency care, obstetrics, orthopedic and general surgery, family healthcare, internal medicine, outpatient clinics, ambulatory care, rehabilitation services and more. Inpatient services include medical, surgical, intensive, obstetrical, orthopedic, pediatric and skilled nursing care, as well as a wide range of therapeutic and diagnostic outpatient services. This institution is an equal opportunity provider and employer. Learn more at WMMC.com