Scrolling Down Into Oblivion: Social Media And Depression – What’s Not To Like?

Let’s take a look at the relationship between social media and depression. Is contact via social media beneficial for mental health? Or does it merely heighten the fear of missing out and even turn into an emotional burden? Sunday afternoon. Emptiness tugs at your sleeve and every activity’s draining. Maybe something interesting changed on Facebook? […]

A person looking at an oversized screen and becoming engulfed by it: A depiction of social media and depression.

Sunday afternoon. Emptiness tugs at your sleeve and every activity’s draining. Maybe something interesting changed on Facebook? You snatch a quick peek at the countless happy timelines, which keep filling anew with all the news that everyone so eagerly presents. Once again, you get to prove to yourself how much more interesting and nice the weekend has been – for others.

Every person who regularly uses Facebook, Instagram, & Co. will be familiar with this feeling: Envying the timeline of others. We may know that everybody presents themselves in the best possible way in virtual reality. But what happens when we forget to regularly remind ourselves of this fact? When I’m having a particularly rough day, I may know, objectively speaking, that Facebook Posts aren’t a true representation of what other people’s lives are like – but do I really feel it?

Social Media – a “soul consumer”?

“Soul consumer” – Harsh words for something that’s intended to connect us with others, right? But it seems kind of true: While Social Media is consuming your soul, you’re likewise consumed with envy, left to feel empty and worse than before the last time you checked your account.

Joe Minihane felt the same way. In an article he explains how Facebook began feeling more like a strenuous task, than any form of enjoyment. Facebook had become more about making oneself feel better about one’s life – rather than truly living it. Feelings of inadequacy, unhappiness, and loneliness followed seamlessly.

“At Facebooks core is the concept of comparison”, Joe Minihane says,  and it takes root in your insecurity. Sean Parker, Facebook’s own former president, admits this openly in an interview, stating that Facebook was purposefully designed to “exploit a vulnerability in human psychology”.

Once Joe Minihane quit Social Media he actually felt relief. He found that he started really enjoying things in his life for what they were and not for the photo-opportunity they provided. Also, he tried harder to stay in touch with the people that mattered to him. Likes seemed to have turned into more of a faceless accumulation of vast numbers, rather than people showing support or interest in his life. Who has the most? It was a discreet competition for something that made no one happy in the end.

A woman dragging a "like" on a leash, like her pet - social media and depression

Envy of your old Facebook-self

Solely knowing that the public appearance in social networks has a great deal to do with showboating, doesn’t really solve the problem. Most of us would have to admit: we don’t only compare ourselves with others. There have been times where we’ve envied ourselves as well.

“I used to be one of those people too, with the funny comments or the breathtaking pictures. I used to know what to say and I always had a comeback.” Or simply: “I used to be so much happier back then.”– sound familiar? Your greatest masochistic action is reading old posts from a “happier time”. Posting something now seems bland in comparison. What interesting thing could I even have to say?

You tell yourself this with the help of a simple little deceptive trick: You’re comparing your insides with people’s outsides.

Dissolving the private and the public

We might be comparing apples and oranges when looking at other people’s timelines, or even at our own. Basically, hardly anyone would post something like: “I felt sort of insignificant and lonely today and I didn’t get anything done.”

So, while we’ve had a sort of “meh” day (or worse: a really bad day), we see happy family pictures, amazing once-in-a-lifetime trips to Cambodia, Peru, France, and hear of all the success people are experiencing. We forget, that this most likely isn’t everyday life for that person, that they don’t always smile like this, that going to Cambodia doesn’t happen every day and that, frankly, we all have our “meh” days.

The guise of Social Media is built on “friends” and supposed values of intimacy. But, it’s very understandable why we don’t share our vulnerability with each other: With an average of 350 friends the stage can feel too public for us to reveal anything beyond what our public selves would want people to know about.

Here’s a tip: Define what social media is to you

So, maybe asking yourself what you want from social media is the crux: What is this social media appearance to me? Why do I want and have it? Do I want it to be a public or private presentation of myself? How authentically should I reveal my true thoughts and feelings? These questions don’t necessarily have a right or wrong answer, but it’s important for you to know your personal answer.

If we don’t have clear answers to these questions we can end up comparing our inner (at times) sad self with people’s greatest moments in life and public accomplishments. It doesn’t take a genius to tell you: That’ll be a losing battle.

For those struggling with a depressive episode, additional questions are very important: Is Social Media in general a good idea for me right now? How do I feel after using it? Do I know when and how to stop or will scrolling down the endless waterfall be too hypnotizing and depleting for me to stop? Or: Can I possibly find a way to use social media as a means to connect with people I care about and find support and encouragement?

Social Media as a place for self-help and emotional support

Those struggling with depression, who aren’t ready to quit their social media presence, face a unique challenge. How to get to a point where using social media channels is done in a healthy way? A change of perspective could be the solution.

Some people are choosing to open up more about their struggles with mental health. For example, hashtags such as #whatyoudontsee, #stopthestigma, #mentalhealthmatters are being used every day by people that try to make talking about these issues easier and less of a taboo. Likewise, celebrities are opening up more about their depression. Jay-Z, for example, published an album this year and is talking openly about his depression in interviews.

It is just nice to know that we, as a society, are starting to talk about this more. And that we can show each other that we’re not alone. But this public approach might not be the best idea for everyone. Some people use Social Media as a way of networking, after all, and have colleagues from work in their contacts. It will be up to you to decide if this stage is too “public” and “professional” to open up about something this personal.

What does research say about depression and social media?

The US “national institute for mental health” financed a study which found that there was a significant link between the increased use of social media and depression in young adults. The level of depression increased, the more time subjects spent with social media (and the more people clicked on social media webpages). It is unclear if this connection emerged because people struggling with depression spend more time on social media, or if social media itself contributes to the onset of depression.

However, Carnegie Mellon University published an interesting investigation in September of 2016 which found that, if Facebook is used “correctly” (i.e. in a healthy way), using it could even make us happier. Sending and receiving more targeted, personal communication was linked to an increase in well-being, while receiving one-click feedback and using a more general broadcast-approach to social media was not linked to these improvements. Thus, it seems to be the way in which we use Facebook and Co. that influences how these platforms have an impact on us, including the relation between social media and depression.

The key to happiness: Real communication

A supportive comment or chat is much more valuable than a one-click-feedback in the shape of a like. We start counting the likes, like modern currency, while the people behind them fade into the background. Meanwhile, the key to happiness lies in experiencing honest social support – Real communication. Authentic concern and genuine empathy. Be it face to face or in a virtual setting.

Social media and depression are connected in different ways. In the end, only you can know what the next step is for you. If you feel like you always feel worse after using social media, maybe quit for a while. If you think that you could use your platforms as a way to grow, get support, and feel better – try it! Encourage yourself to find what feels right: True connection to the people you care about. Mere likes alone won’t make us happy. And least of all during a depressive episode.


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