We see it all over the news and parents often witness it in their teenage children: an almost obsessive reliance on media. Of course, contemporary media is not just comprised of one process or device. It encompasses everything from the Internet to television, to the myriad apps and texting capacities of mobile devices. There are literally hundreds of platforms and each medium provides users with a specific experience. With this increase in media use, it is no surprise that researchers are interested in the relationship between mental health and the media. Mental health is way too general to conquer in one blog post, so this first one will focus on depression and the media. In more specific terms, I will reflect on the question: what is the link between depression and media?
To begin, it is necessary to understand that asking about the relationship between depression and media is fairly similar to asking if the chicken or the egg came first. At this point, we just do not know the answer. It is possible that depressed individuals use media as an outlet for their loneliness, but it is also possible that media use causes or contributes to depression in some people. If there is one thing that I would like readers to take away from this review, it is that research in this area shows correlation but has yet to establish causation between depression and media.
Overall, the link between media and depression is dependent upon which platform is used, so I have chosen to separate this blog post into different sections based on medium.
The term “Internet Addiction (IA)” gets thrown around in society, but many individuals do not actually know the true meaning. I will often hear my mom tell me that I am “addicted to my phone” or “addicted to social media”, but Internet Addiction is much more than just constantly checking one’s media devices. In fact, researchers have defined IA as an “individual’s inability to control their Internet use, which in turn leads to feelings of distress and functional impairment of daily activities” (1). In general, Internet addicts are identified as those who used the Internet an average of 38 hours per week for nonacademic or non-employment purposes. Not surprisingly, IA is strongly associated with depression, partly because impaired mental health functioning is part of the definition of IA. What is not clear is whether Internet Addiction leads to the kind of depression that interferes with daily life, on or off-line, or whether individuals with depressive tendencies are more vulnerable to the kind of Internet use that leads to the compulsive feelings and behaviors associated with addiction. Studies in this area do suggest that depression is a significant factor in the development of pathological Internet use (2).
Readers have undoubtedly heard the term “social media.” Social media is a general term that comprises many platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. The bulk of research on social media and depression conducted to date has been done on the overlap between Facebook and depression. Facebook is a social media site, which allows users to post status updates, pictures, links, photos and general comments. Studies show that Facebook is primarily used to achieve positive self-presentation (3).
But, does use of Facebook cause depression? In general, research in this area suggests a complicated relationship. “Facebook Depression,” is a related term coined by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but around which not a lot of research has been conducted (4). It describes the feelings that can arise when young Facebook users see status updates, wall posts, and photos on Facebook that make them feel unpopular or less liked. While “Facebook Depression” may occur in any user, it is likely that social media sites have a greater impact on those who already experience low self-esteem (4) .
While the link between Facebook and depression is not well established, it is clear that FB use can lead to something researchers call “Facebook envy”(3,4). This is a phenomenon in which Facebook users perceive that their social attractiveness or desirability is lower than their friends’, based solely on the lives their circle of friends create through Facebook posts (status updates and images). Researchers found that those who use Facebook more have higher levels of Facebook envy and Facebook envy predicts depressive symptoms. In other words, Facebook use alone does not lead to depression, but when Facebook envy is taken into account, using Facebook predicts depression (3).
The majority of people that I know own Smartphones (iPhones or Androids). While the social media platforms that I discussed above are often found as apps on smartphones, mobile phone use in general is also linked to depression. For example, in a study of young adults ages 20-24 years old, investigators longitudinally examined the relationship between a variety of mobile phone use variables (e.g. frequency of use, demands on availability, perceived stressfulness of accessibility, being awakened at night by the mobile phone and personal overuse of mobile phone), and mental health outcomes. After comparing respondents’ answers at baseline and 1 year follow up, it was clear that excessive mobile phone use negatively affected perceived current stress, quality of sleep, and symptoms of depression. Risk for reporting mental health symptoms at follow-up was highest among those who found the perceived accessibility via mobile phones to be stressful. In other words, those who believed their mobile phones to be more available to themselves were likely to report more mental health symptoms at follow-up (5).
With all the different forms of technology available, it is not uncommon to see someone using two platforms at once. I myself am guilty of media multitasking. I am always on my phone playing a game when watching television. And to be completely honest, I have even been observed watching television on my iPad, while typing on my computer, and keeping my phone next to me. Due to the high prevalence of media multitasking, researchers recently began to study its relationship to depression. In one study, for example, 318 participants completed questionnaires that asked about their media use, personality characteristics, depression and social anxiety. The results from the study showed that while overall media use is not associated with depression and social anxiety, media multitasking is a predictor of both. For example, merely watching television for 6 hours a day is not related to depression, but watching Netflix while playing computer games may cause depression. A possible explanation for this is the fact that media multitasking has the potential to lead to deficits in basic cognitive processes, including the ability to filter out irrelevant information and ignore distractions (6).
Up to this point, most of the research that I have presented shows the negative link between media, specifically the Internet, and depression. You might be asking yourself if the Internet is really as bad as it seems? Evidence suggests that the answer may be, “it depends on who is using it, what they are using it for, how often they use it, and what happens while they are there.” For example, in 2011, Nielsen conducted a survey in which participants engaged in 5 separate chat sessions with an anonymous other. Three different interval levels were administered and scales measuring depression, loneliness, self-esteem and social support were used. Over the course of the 4-8 week study, loneliness and depression decreased, and the participant’s perceptions of social support and self-esteem increased. These results suggested that positive, sustained interaction with other people through a web-based application may have beneficial effects. Clearly much more research is needed.
If you think that you or someone you care about may be suffering from depression due to media use there are a few things to look for. In addition to looking out for the general symptoms of depression, such as feelings of sadness or emptiness, angry outbursts, and loss of interest, it is also helpful to note how social media is being used. A Brown University study of Instagram use among 166 volunteers and 43,950 Instagram photos showed that the more depressed the participant was in standard depression index scores, the more likely they were to post photos in darker tones (grays and blues rather than bright and colorful pictures), and the less likely they were to use filters. When depressed individuals did use filters, they chose the black and white filter called “Inkwell.”
The study also looked at triggering tags and other language use on social media, and found that many of the users circumvented platform rules about posting triggering tags on content to avoid being reported. Of the 18 hashtags about self-harm that were studied, only 6 of them created a warning label on Instagram, which redirects users to a site to seek help. Instagram recently started including these warnings for words associated with self-harm, but users have “tricked” the system by adding two extra m’s creating #selfharmmm (7).
With the increased presence of media in today’s society, it is not that surprising that people might begin to exhibit depressive systems using new media platforms. It is equally important to remember though, that a picture with a black and grey undertone or inkwell filter does not necessarily mean that the person who posted it is depressed. While I hope that this blog has clearly depicted the overlap between media and depression, I do not want you to think that the answer to solving depression is to restrict media use. Rather, remember that there exists only a correlation between the two. However, it is of equal importance to keep in mind some helpful tips the next time you find yourself using media. There has been much talk about “mindfulness”, or staying present in the moment and focusing on the task at hand. This means restraining from multitasking, so next time you are watching a TV show, try to put away your phone. In terms of specific forms of social media, it is important to remind yourself that what you see online is not always realistic. Restrain from comparing yourself to other pictures you may see. To answer the overarching question of whether depression precedes media use or vice versa? My response would be the same if I were asked whether the chicken or the egg came first? We just do not know yet.