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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Does Facebook (and other social networking) lead to increased depression?

[ Short link to this article if you need it - or retweet me ]

This is an article that's been in draft form well over a year now (it was written as the final entry following my previous two articles about Facebook - one on the frequent appearance of unsourced "scandal" posts and social engineering and another on technical issues with the site - and I initially intended to post it shortly after the others near the end of 2012!) It wook a while because it's a tricky one to balance the article correctly and frankly, it was hard at the time to come by non-anecdotal statistics to back it up effectively. But I now need to get it out of the way so I can post some more blogs :-) Unfortunately I may have missed the boat slightly by delaying it since there are a few similar articles that were posted during 2013 by others!

I have a concern that social media potentially triggers more cases of depression than is necessarily appreciated. This is, of course, not necessarily an issue limited to Facebook, but I've focussed on it because the sorts of things people tend to post on that site more typically demonstrate the concern as "Facebook friends" are mostly contacts that we know personally rather than the rich and famous or other people you've never met.

Over the last ten years the number of young people admitted to hospital for self-harming has increased by 68% and the rate appears to be increasing. [EDIT: Deaths from suicide are over double those from road accidents (2012 data, 5981 vs 1754 - info via @MentalHealthCop)] Similar increases have occurred with other mental illnesses during the period when the internet has taken a major part of people's lives. This is particularly the case with younger people who are starting to grow up with social media as a normal part of their life. There have also been large increases in parents' reports of their children's depression and anxiety disorders between the 80s and the 00s (see chart below), and while those surveys mostly pre-date the widespread explosion of social networking (although not the internet generally) it does suggest that people are more likely to be susceptible from an earlier age to the effects I'm writing about. (As an aside I thought the charts of when high school pupils use Facebook through the day was quite interesting too!)

With social media it's now far easier, and common, to get a view inside other people's lives. You now get more details than you would have previously had from people who you don't regularly interact with in person - those outside your traditional circle of close friends. And in general people are more likely to be sharing the positives - when they're out visiting somewhere or at a fun event for example. It's far less likely that you'll hear about the more mundane things (except photos of food) or hear from people when they're not actively doing anything interesting. Although saying that, posting self-deprecating posts for others' entertainment can act as an antidote to these issues!

The problem with happiness

So if people mostly post fun stuff, then where am I going with this article? What's the problem with sharing "happiness". Here are a few concerns:
  1. If you see people doing fun stuff and you're not, which can leave you feeling left out
  2. You may feel under pressure to find things worth posting, and if you believe you don't have any suitable things to post, you might think your life is not as interesting
  3. Maybe you'll take it personally if you think people "unfriend" you because you are not also posting lots of positive things
  4. You may see people with hundreds of social media connections but you don't have many yourself, which may leave you feel more lonely and believe you are missing out
All of which I believe are valid concerns that can leave to problems and - tackling each in turn - here's why:
  • Point 1 is a hard one to solve, as you (hopefully!) wouldn't want your friends not to enjoy themselves, but if someone is left with a feeling that you've been actively left out then there can be thoughts of "Why was I left out?" or "I might have enjoyed that too". This problem is potentially worse with location based checkin systems such as foursquare. There are plenty of innocent reasons whym someone may have been left out - it's a private event with their partner, someone else who doesn't know you arranged it, last minute scheduling, or there's only so many people that could come along. Is it even fair to invite you to something that the organiser believes you wouldn't be able to afford? Either way it's best not to automatically assume it was a malicious decision not to include you.
  • Depression + anxiety disorders will not be helped by the extra pressure of point 2. There's an interesting statistic from mental health charity MIND which claimed that depression with anxiety is 3.7x more common that depression alone (that statistic was from a while back - apologies that I can't find the reference link for it any more) I also think that people who post comments like "I already knew that" or "Have you really not heard of that?" and similar comments are more negative than people realise and can put people off posting. Maybe one person did see it before, maybe a few more did, but there's a decent chance that many of your other followers didn't so it shouldn't put you off.
  • The third reason is always interesting because you won't normally know the reason for it. In general I'd recommend that people mute others from your timeline rather than unfriending them if you don't want visibility of their posts. Personally, I'd only unfriend if I wanted to stop them seeing all my posts for some reason, not because I didn't want to see theirs. It's easy for people to take it personally if they're unfriended, as articles like this show. I find it rather bizarre that some people on twitter have a weekly automated post of how many people unfollowed them from tools such as JustUnfollow or fllwrs - how can that be good for your ego? And in the twitter case it's always possible that someone just moved you to a list instead of having you in their main timeline.
  • Point 4 is often a fallacy. There are plenty of "friend sluts" out there who will friend and accept nearly anyone. Other people are much stricter and use Facebook as a medium for sharing more privately than on other networks like twitter or Google+. I'm in that category - I have a lot of unaccepted Facebook friend requests - mostly from work colleagues! The numbers of friends are rarely representative of anything unless you are using Facebook for business reasons. So what if you know fewer people than others - think of it as quality over quantity. Or buy this T-shirt. Sure you might not get the same interaction as others on your posts because of the lower reach, but that doesn't make the interactions any less valuable. This BBC article concludes that the practical limit of close friends you have is between six and 12 anyway. So anything over that are likely to be extras that people have chosen to have as less close social network friends.
So should you be sensitive to these issues when posting? Maybe ... there's always an option of using the Facebook invite mechanism to send out private invites and restrict discussions from those you might want not to see them if you want to. Facebook has made the use of groups (which has been there for a long time) a more integral part of the site as they've moved forward and it's good to see those options available on mobile platforms now too as they used to be excluded from the APIs. And despite all the Facebook privacy concerns you hear about, they have been better than most other social networks at providing options to control it. But overall we need to ensure that we understand that not everyone is posting great positive things all the time. It may sometimes look like it from your feed (and if you're suffering from an illness such as depression it's easier for your view to be skewed towards that way of thinking and think "why can't I be like that?" or "How can I compete with my own posts?") but the majority of people aren't necessarily so prolific in their positivity sharing.

It's important to try and retain a sense of perspective and not drown in the belief that "everyone" else is doing such things all the time although it is easy to think like that and for it to get you down. It's also easy to think that just avoiding it by deactivating your social media account will resolve things, but would it truly change anything? I used to advocate restricting certain people's likelihood to appear in your facebook feed, but unfortunately Facebook seem to have removed the feature.

Looking at the whole topic another way, is point 2 above a reason why people might choose to overshare? If they crave the extra interaction and feel a need to compete with others then it's a possibility. The following quote refers to "the line" of what to decide to share. It wouldn't be right to compromise your principles to share something you don't want to just to make yourself appear more exciting, although the reasons above might superficially encourage people to overshare:

Social media and headlines

There have been a few stories of "Facebook-related suicides" (or bullying in all it's different forms) in the news and Facebook even have a specific reporting page for concerning posts but I don't think that blaming social media sites themselves for this is sensible or scalable in a culture of free speech - even if it does make for effective tabloid headlines. At worst the social networks are merely a catalyst to such outcomes. Knee-jerk "We must put a stop to [something we've seen]" reactions usually haven't considered the wider picture and can lead to a lynch-mob mentality which is neither positive nor objective (a topic I may write a separate article on at some point). Suicides and bullying happen as a result of life in general and not just to social media participants and I believe that people trying to put all the blame on companies running the sites for the behaviour of their users is utterly ridiculous for several reasons:
  1. It ignores the digital age of the internet and how people interact now - more online than in person. It doesn't change the rules, it merely moves the communication to a different medium and makes it more open. That isn't the sole cause of any underlying problems, and being open means it's easier to obtain evidence if required. Surely that's better than driving such behaviour underground?
  2. Blaming large companies is symptomatic of a modern day lawyer-obsessed compensation culture where everyone's happy if they can find someone to sue in a legal loophole rather than tackling the underlying issues of society. It's an easy option - not the right one.
  3. If the people are committing crimes, then if anyone it should be the police dealing with it.
  4. Is the alternative - personal data being held by more companies - actually preferable? (See my G+ post for more on this topic from a recent example from actions towards footballer Stan Collymore))

Celebrities and social media trolls

I still find it somewhat surprising when celebrities complain about "twitter trolls" - does that behaviour really surprise anyone with human nature being the way it is? Not everyone's going to like you, and some will vigorously say so. Abuse is not nice, but it's life and unfortunately it's a strong part of being in the public spotlight for celebrities, although it would be preferable for people to stick to attacking the points they object to rather than the person making them. James Blunt seems to acknowledge that it's not likely to change and deals with trolls in a smart way on twitter, but it's usually better to just ignore general insults. Or if it's genuine negative criticism see if you can learn anything from it, but don't think that everyone has the same view just because of one comment:

Would you recognise a genuine cry for help?

But let's look at it from the other side - not the negative view of the victims being bullied on social media (which includes sites like Little Gossip who's anonymous approach to posts made it easier to victimise people) but in terms of other people using it as a cry for help when in a troubling situation. Social media can undoubtedly make that side of it easier (here's one such article about that subject) and there are plenty of support channels out there - here's an article about how mental health topics are discussed on twitter. However it's not always easy if the person doesn't want to take the steps themselves to resolve any negative situations. When you see such a post of someone potentially suffering what do you think:
  • Are they actually merely "venting"?
  • Do they want some friendly emotional support?
  • Are they genuinely in serious trouble and need quick action?
It's hard to determine which of those three is true with any degree of accuracy from just a status update (especially if the person has a history of "crying wolf" or has a reputation as a "drama queen"). And if you don't necessarily know the person too well it may be hard to determine which of those three categories any given post is in, and it's also tricky to ascertain what reaction someone is even looking for. What you might perceive as a critical situation from a post may not really be that way. And how should you react when you spot that such a post or thread is deleted as occasionally happens? Domestic abuse is also a serious issue, and forced self-censorship on social media is one way in which it can show up (although the internet has made it easier to find resources to help with domestic abuse). I'd argue that as part of moving to a digital age our ability to react to these things appropriately are the new skills we need to improve on, not finding organisations to blame.


Unfortunately I don't believe there's one easy solution to social media potentially increasing problems but let's be honest - we're not going to go back to an unconnected pre-digital world and anyone seriously suggesting we need to is not in touch with today's reality. Previously you'd have the support of the community and people around you who you'd see on a regular basis, but nowadays a higher proportion of personal interaction occurs online on social media sites, and that does change the interactions and support available. The "Why The Sudden Increase" section of this article includes the quote:

   "Traditional communities naturally meet many basic needs for emotional support"

and the move towards online interactions means we've lost a significant amount of that nowadays (Thanks to @MentalHealthCop for that link - I recommend following him if you're interested in the topic)

But perhaps we just need to get better at reading the problem signs and having an awareness and sensitivity to the issues I've written about in this article, although nowadays in a 140-character bite-sized world of low attention spans when it's trivial to move on to the next thing that comes around on our screens, it might be harder to actually spot them. Let's just try and retain our humanity and react sensitively instead of just being a label on a screen. You may be in a digital age, but remember that you are not just a number.

EDIT 30/6/2014: Facebook ran an experiment in 2012 that has generated a bit of controversy now with adjusting posts in people's news feeds to modify the priority based on certain emotionally charged words. See this article for details.

Footnote: I haven't really used Facebook for over six months now (actually the same is true of most other social networks too, but FB is the one I miss least). It's not for the reasons in this article, but mostly because I've got a bit bored of the non-optional feed filtering which Facebook have now removed as I mentioned earlier (they were useful for semi-muting people just sharing ten links a day - something hopefully improved if edgerank is now really preferring text posts) and the seemingly increasing number of content-free posts (such as the dinner photo example). Plus of course there are the reasons in my last blog entry. And I really wish that SMS messaging worked for PMs - it makes staying away harder (so maybe it's intentional!) The site seems to have gone downhill since the IPO (although I think timing-wise that's just coincidence) and it's no longer retaining it's user base as well. I'm missing more of the useful content now in my feed, unless I use lists as my main feed. And GIVE ME THE DAMN TICKER! - They still haven't added to my account. But maybe I'll go back, if only for the people who've said to me that they miss my style of posts :-)

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