Is social media bad for your health? - Part 2

Who is vulnerable to “Facebook depression”?

Enjoy on the Podcast - Apple Podcasts - Spotify -

Clearly, not all adolescents (and adults) that are heavy users of social media get depressed, so this raises two further questions:

  1. Are some individuals more vulnerable to depression in this on-line environment? This seems intuitively true. But what is the psychological profile that makes people more vulnerable?

  2. Is there a certain type of Social media use that is more psychologically damaging?

Although most of the research in to this subject (substitute Facebook for any social media platform, including on-line gaming platforms) has been mainly focused on adolescence, we see the phenomenon in adults too.

The main groups likely to be more susceptible:

  1. People with an ‘addictive personality’. Although there is no single addictive personality as such, we all know people who are more prone to reward seeking, risk taking, and compulsion to drinks, drugs or gambling.

  2. People on the autistic spectrum. Research shows that people with ASD tend to have less awareness of social norms of behaviour. They prefer their own company and are more likely to substitute the internet world for IRL. They are also more likely to have obsessional or compulsive behaviours. We know that these factors combine to make them more vulnerable to on line gaming and porn addiction. Extreme cases lead to sleep deprivation, and even starvation. In addition, the isolation from friends and family IRL as a risk factor for depression and suicide. 

  3. Adolescents. With greater need for affirmation from peers and less self-regulation due to immature brain development, they are rightly regarded as a highly vulnerable group. 

  4. People scoring high on narcissism and low self-esteem. I link these concepts because narcissism is, at its core, a condition of unconscious self-loathing. The desire to be centre of attention and to obtain validation from strangers is extreme in narcissistic personality disorder. Narcissists are simultaneously incapable of the very thing they needed when growing up – a close, intimate relationship - because ‘at core’ they feel unlovable. intimate regard is terrifying so they search for more superficial approval, but there is never enough to fill the aching void. Narcissists suffered inconsistent parenting, critical parenting, and neglect. They can be understood as people who lacked a secure attachment. However, about 30% of us are insecurely attached, so there is a spectrum of severity. Milder forms of “insecurity” are not so all-encompassing, but it is easy to see how such insecurity could lead to social media addiction. If this is then accompanied by “narcissistic injury” (for example, a hate campaign, or merely a sense of growing inadequacy when comparing oneself to more ‘perfect’ on-line lives) could readily lead to anxiety, depression and even suicide by “confirming” the sense of worthlessness. 

Type of social media use

It is generally considered to be psychologically dangerous for individuals (depressed or healthy) to engage in exclusively narcissistic behaviours – such as constantly updating one’s own profile in search of “likes” in order to get validation. If you are robust and secure enough to detach your real self from your on-line self – such as the savvy “Influencer” – there is perhaps less of a narcissistic need for approval and more a cold commercial imperative.

Whether this is healthy has yet to be established because the lines might often be blurred. We don’t enough about the psychological consequences of Influencers who go out of favour. Certainly, we know of some high-profile actors, such as Keira Knightly, who suffered psychological trauma from the vitriol directed at them by Twitter. 

Limited evidence suggests that if you have an impressive number of positive things going on in your life, constantly updating your Profile or Insta-life with positive, authentic images and statements might actually serve as a useful reminder of your achievements, and the important people in your life. This brings to mind of a book written by a psychologist I used to work with, Jerome Carson, who recommended that clients suffering low self-esteem keep a “warm and fuzzy file” – a record of their achievements and accomplishments. 

A study by Gonzales and Hancock included groups of student participants exposed to three different settings: exposure to a mirror, exposure to one’s own Facebook profile, and a control setting. The level of self-esteem in all participants was estimated using the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The results showed the positive effects of Facebook on self-esteem - supporting the notion that selective self-presentation positively impacts self-image.

Overall, though, the evidence is weighed towards using social media for validation as being ineffective and self-defeating, especially in vulnerable groups. The lab study above can be criticised for not reflecting how people use social media in the real world. 

Passive use of Facebook – screening for updates on other people’s lives, can quickly lead to greater feelings of inadequacy when a seed of insecurity was there in the first place. Studies have recently shown a strong link between depression and passive use, which is probably bidirectional.  It is a very tempting to drop in to such behaviour when feeling low. Generally speaking, passive use is best avoided. Pro-active use is best. 

Social media and psychological harm: Conclusions and recommendations

Although social media use can be beneficial, especially at first, there is overwhelming evidence that it can draw us in to an addiction to the virtual version of ourselves, and can cause anxiety, depression, and even suicide in vulnerable individuals.  

This is true for both children and adults but children are most vulnerable. There has been an increase in parents of 12-15s and of 12-15s themselves saying that controlling screen time has become harder.

Depression individuals use social media more often

It’s possible that this only serves to maintain or deepen their depression, although some might benefit, depending on how they use it. 

We are still trying to tease out who gets “Facebook Depression” and how. There is likely a complicated interaction between inherent or acquired psychological vulnerabilities in an individual and the way in which they use social media.

Suggestions for reducing harm

  1. Be particularly wary of using social media if you have an insecure attachment style/narcissism/fragile self-esteem. Also, be wary if you are currently low or depressed, prone to addiction, or are on the autistic spectrum.

  2. Use social media in an active, prosocial way – increasing engagement in the real world, developing interests, researching, keeping in touch with distant friends. 

  3. Avoid using social media to get validation, or to compete with other’s lives.

  4. Avoid using social media in a passive way – merely perusing the news feed. Turn off update icons and use it when you see fit.

  5. Moderate your children’s use of social media, depending on age. Parental concerns about the internet are rising, although parents are, in some areas, becoming less likely to moderate their child’s activities, not more likely. For older children, banning social media use seems impractical. Better to educate them on how best to use it, and definitely restrict screen time in younger children. 

Dr Paul Keedwell asserts his rights as author of this article.

George TaylorComment