Study: Negative social media causes ‘depressive symptoms’

Likes, comments and shares can boost one’s morale on social media and communication with friends, family and followers is changing people’s experiences with one another through digital platforms.

However, according to a study at Pitt Health Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh, negative online experiences can impact individuals more than positive experiences, resulting in “depressive symptoms” in youth and young adults.

Social media is good for connecting and staying in contact with family and friends, but it also “creates a false sense of connection,” said Kathy W. Zakarian, director of counseling at Pennsylvania College of Technology.

In 2016, Brian Primack, lead author and director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at Pitt, and his team “surveyed 1,179 full-time students, ages 18 to 30 at the University of West Virginia about their social media use and experiences,” the study said. “Women had 50 percent higher odds of having depressive symptoms.”

Individuals are more likely to experience depressive symptoms or depression identify as non-white and have “completed ‘some college,’ “ according to the study. This is not to say, though, that positive social media experiences aren’t valuable.

Superficial vs. oversharing

Communication cues can be expressed nonverbally, said Michael W. Gillum, licensed psychologist and director at Gillum Psychological & Counseling Services in the city. If you are unable to see or hear the person you’re talking with, you’re missing cues like eye contact, vocal cues or seeing if someone is turning away from a conversation.

It’s “different when you have a superficial relationship with somebody online,” Zakarian said. “There’s a lack of depth in the quality of relationships that occur online.”

People can overinvest or overshare information about themselves while messaging, Gillum said. It’s difficult to tell if someone is interested in talking as friends or romantically because social cues aren’t being received. In a negative circumstance, if you overtrust someone with information, it may be shared in related context to a conversation, out of spite or as a bully.

Spending a lot of time on social media can cause anxiety if you’re avoiding a phone call or talking in person, Gillum said. It’s common to be anxious around new people, but continuously avoiding this can heighten anxiety, which can lead to depressive symptoms.

‘Fear of missing out’

Social media has created a pressure to feel available 24/7, Zakarian said. When notifications pop up, people may feel they have to respond to a text or comment quickly. This goes for waiting for responses, too.

FOMO is the “fear of missing out,” coined in the mid-2000s, Zakarian said. FOMO happens when someone is not included in mutual friends, interests or events and can trigger insecurities and feelings of rejection, contributing to anxiety, self doubt and depression.

People easily can misrepresent themselves, but what they share on their pages, such as events they’ve attended or people they hanging out with, can comment on who they are, whether they intended it or not, Gillum said. You could share a song you like but that musician may have ties to a group or have said something you are unaware of that doesn’t represent who you are.

If you see someone post something that isn’t true to their character and who they are, inform them about it, Gillum said.

Finding self-worth

Self-worth can be connected to the number of likes on someone’s post, Zakarian said. A successful post can make you feel good about yourself while another may not do as well.

It creates “a false sense of superiority if their not getting the response they were looking for or hoping for,” Zakarian said.

Online, people tend to say things they normally wouldn’t in person. Sometimes, a person didn’t intend to hurt a friend through a comment or post on social media, but it ended up having a negative impact on their life, Gillum said. By questioning someone’s post or providing feedback, you can clarify someone’s intent — was it meant to be mean? Did they not understand what it said or think it through before sharing it? Be careful how you approach the situation.

Stand up for others

The “more people stand up to (cyberbullying) and say, ‘you know, that was a nasty comment. I don’t think you should have made that. I don’t think any of us looking at it appreciate it,’ and hope others jump on it, too,” Gillum said.

If you see someone post something negative towards another person, step in and “call them on that” and why it wasn’t kind, “point out something more positive,” Zakarian said.

Before posting, make sure to take a step back to see if you may be oversharing information, whether that be private or public, and think about what you’re saying to others and about yourself, Gillum said. If you’re unsure of what someone means, ask for clarity.

Know when to step back

Encourage teens and college students to spend time in activities that can increase their self-worth, Zakarian said. She suggests parents to talk with children about positive and negative uses of social media.

“Recognize … maybe I do need to take a step back or maybe I need to limit my time because I’m not feeling so positive and refreshed after spending some time on social media. So you really have to look at your experience and adjust it accordingly,” Zakarian said.

By selecting people you want to stay in touch with, you can have more meaningful experiences on social media rather than connecting with people you don’t know, Zakarian said.

A digital detox from cellphones, computers and televisions can help kids, college students and people of all ages, to look at how much non-screen time they have and how they are spending their free time, Zakarian said. Have designated times, like at the dinner table as a “collective family effort” or relaxing and unwinding for bed, to be screen-free.

“The real way to develop positive feelings about yourself and self-esteem is really through the activities you’re in. The sense of belongingness you have with others and those genuine connections,” Zakarian said. “It’s quality of friends versus quantity.”


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