Two studies recently released offer insights on the impact of Facebook and other social media on the mental health of adults and children.
Research by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and School of Pharmacy reveals Facebook could be valuable at helping identify people who may be depressed and perhaps on the verge of suicide. However, the findings also stress that Facebook should not be used as a substitute for clinical screening and medical treatment for people who are depressed or suicidal.
The investigators analyzed the Facebook profiles of 200 college sophomores and juniors.
Results showed that 25 percent of the students displayed one or more references to depression symptoms, including decreased interest or pleasure in activities, change in appetite, sleep problems, loss of energy, and feelings of guilt and
worthlessness. None of the students in this study expressed suicidal thoughts.
According to Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician, assistant professor at the School of Medicine and Public Health, and lead author of the study, many of these students received encouragement from their Facebook friends on the Facebook page, who asked how they could help resolve their problems.
“People are getting support from other Facebook users when they display these comments, so it may be used as a mini-support group for depression,” she says. “Given the frequency of depression symptoms displayed, it’s possible that depression disclosures on Facebook may actually help to reduce the stigma around mental illness.”
The findings also indicated that 2.5 percent of profiles displayed enough information to merit screening for depression.
Moreno adds that while Facebook should not be used to formally diagnose depression, it may be valuable in identifying students who are contemplating suicide and help them receive needed treatment.
“Recent media reports indicated planned suicides that were displayed on Facebook before being carried out,” she said. “This highlights the urgent need to understand how often depression is displayed on Facebook and what this may mean.
Early identification of depression may be easier now if you see repeated references on Facebook.”
The findings come on the cusp of a clinical report from American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents and Families,” released March 28 that recommends pediatricians and parents take a more active role in monitoring their children’s use of social-networking sites and ask questions concerning displays of sexual innuendo, drug and alcohol use, bullying, depression and social anxiety.
“The findings in the recent AAP study are certainly in line with other studies and reports from mental health providers all over the country,” said Marvin C. Chaffin, a licensed Mental Health Counselor with Lakeview Center in Pensacola.
“The use (and abuse) of social media is an increasingly relevant topic for children and adolescents, as well as their parents in some circumstance. In the near future, I suspect that questions regarding use of social media will become a regular part of a routine health screening.”
Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, co-author of the AAP clinical report, believes that social media, like Facebook, is the primary way some teens and tweens interact socially. “A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones,” said O’Keefe. “Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children’s online world–and comfortably parent in that world.”
The AAP report outlines the positive effects of social media. Engagement in social media and online communities can enhance communication, facilitate social interaction and help develop technical skills. They can help tweens and teens discover opportunities to engage in the community by volunteering, and can help youth shape their sense of identity. These tools also can be useful adjuncts to–and in some cases are replacing–traditional learning methods in the classroom.
“There are so many opportunities to capitalize on these developments for the good of so many,” said Dr. Rex Northrup, Co-Medical Director of Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital. “We just need to maintain involvement with our children and others and try, as best as we can, to keep up with the incredible pace of the ever changing advances in technology and the ways that technology is then put to use. If we do not do this for our children, someone else will and the results may not be what either we or our children would wish for.”
And that is a big concern expressed in the APA report. Because tweens and teens have a limited capacity for self-regulation and are susceptible to peer pressure, they are at some risk as they engage in and experiment with social media, according to the report. They can find themselves on sites and in situations that are not age-appropriate, and research suggests that the content of some social media sites can influence youth to engage in risky behaviors.
“Putting this technology into the hands of our children without proper instruction, supervision and monitoring is potentially as irresponsible and dangerous as simply handing the keys to a car or a loaded gun to a child or young adult without the proper care and education needed,” said Northrup. “Least you think this is overreacting, lives have been changed, damaged and even destroyed by the misuse of this technology and the various forms of social networking and related activities.”
In addition, social media provides venues for cyberbullying and sexting, among other dangers. Youth who are more at-risk offline tend to also be more at-risk online.
“Some young people find the lure of social media difficult to resist, which can interfere with homework, sleep and physical activity,” Dr. O’Keeffe said. “Parents need to understand how their child is using social media so that they can set appropriate limits.”
American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for pediatricians to help families navigate the social media landscape:
Advise parents to talk to children and adolescents about their online use and the specific issues that today’s online kids face, such as cyberbullying, sexting and difficulty managing their time.
Advise parents to work on their own “participation gap” in their homes by becoming better educated about the many technologies their children are using.
Discuss with families the need for a family online-use plan, with an emphasis on citizenship and healthy behavior.
Discuss with parents the importance of supervising online activities via active participation and communication, not just via monitoring software.
The AAP offers additional resources about online safety for children and teens, including its Internet Safety Site at safetynet.aap.org.