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Many clinical professionals in our industry are questioning their clients use of social media. They wonder if social media negatively contributes to, or positively helps, their clients’ mental health issues. Professionals question whether it is the amount of time that a client spends on social media, the number of sites they visit and participate in, or the quality of their interactions that matter. This prompted me to do a high-level survey of the literature on the subject. Here are some significant highlights on what I found.

A study published online in Computers in Human Behavior on December 10, 2016, reported that the use of multiple social media platforms is more strongly associated with depression and anxiety among young adults than time spent online as previously thought by researchers. These findings come from a national survey of 1,787 young adults that asked about their use of eleven popular social media platforms: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Google Plus, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Vine, and LinkedIn. The study revealed that people who reported using the most platforms had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than people who used the least amount. These increased odds remained consistent even after adjusting for the total time spent on social media and other factors such as race, gender, relationship status, education, and income.

Joanne Davila, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at Stony Brook University with a specialty in interpersonal relationships among adolescents and young adults, also believes that “using multiple platforms might lead to these changes in mood, but it could also be that people who are depressed or have a propensity for depression use more social media sites.” In one study, Dr. Davila surveyed a group of volunteers three weeks apart to look at short-term behavioral changes and found that time spent online was not strongly linked with subsequent depressive symptoms. She found that having negative experiences, which included “gaffes, unwanted contacts, or cyberbullying increased the risk for depression.” Davila suggested that these types of experiences lead to “rumination” in the users, who may begin to think of themselves in a negative light.

Samantha Rosenthal, Ph.D., M.P.H., a research associate in the Department of Epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, also found that the nature of social media interactions is a significant factor for users’ mental health outcomes. In a study published that surveyed 264 young adults, she and colleagues explored how negative Facebook experiences influenced depression risk. The survey revealed that these negative events are common. She found that more than 80% of the participants had at least one negative experience on Facebook, and 60% had four or more.

After adjusting for other factors, Rosenthal found that negative Facebook experiences were independent predictors of depression risk. It was found that the precipitating event did matter, as bullying or other mean behaviors were associated with about 3.5 times higher risk, while unwanted contact was associated with about 2.5 times higher risk. Lastly, it was revealed that the frequency of negative events contributed to risk as well, though even one instance of bullying could increase the risk of depression. (See Using Many Social Media Platforms Linked With Depression, Anxiety Risk).

A study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that the use of Facebook causes depressive symptoms, and the primary reason is “social comparison.” Making comparisons, often between our not so exciting lives and our friends’ seemingly wonderful reported experiences lead to feelings of depression. In another study from University of Houston, the researchers queried people about their Facebook use and questioned them on how likely they were to make social comparisons and how often they experienced depressive symptoms. The first part of their study revealed that people who used Facebook more often tended to have more depressive symptoms and social comparison was a mediating factor only for men. The second part of the study which focused on types of comparison found that people who logged more Facebook time not only had more depressive symptoms, but it did not matter whether a person was making upward, downward, or neutral social comparison. Both genders were linked to a greater likelihood for depressive symptoms. Study author Mai-Ly Steers found that “…heavy Facebook users might be comparing themselves to their friends, which in turn can make them feel more depressed.” (See New Study Links Facebook To Depression: But Now We Actually Understand Why).

Social Media Benefits & Risks For Children

Participating in social media is common practice for children in today’s society. Over 60% of 13-17 year olds have at least one profile on a social networking site, and many youth are spending more than two hours per day using this form of communication. Social networking can present both positive and negative opportunities to youth who participate (See Social Networking and Children).
According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, some potential benefits include:

  • Staying connected to friends and family, especially those who live in other countries
  • Developing new social contacts with peers with similar interests
  • Sharing content of self-expression such as art work, music, and political views
  • Developing and expressing your individual identity

Online social networking can also involve risks, such as:

  • Online bullying, frequently referred to as “cyber bullying”
  • Sharing too much information
  • Vulnerability to predatory adults
  • Sharing photos or video that you later regret
  • Exposure to large amounts of commercial advertisements, which may not be age appropriate
  • Risk of identity theft
  • Reduced amount of time for physical activity

Cyber Bullying: A New Form Of Abuse

Providers in the health and human services industry are serving children that have been victims or perpetrators of cyber bullying. Cyber bullying involves using technology, like cell phones and the Internet, to bully or harass another person. Cyber bullying can be very harmful to children and adolescents. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and even contribute to suicide. Also, once content is circulated on the Internet, it may never disappear, resurfacing at later times to re-victimize the child. Cyber bullying can take many forms:

  • Sending mean messages or threats to a person’s email account or cell phone
  • Spreading rumors online or through texts
  • Posting hurtful or threatening messages on social networking sites or web pages
  • Stealing a person’s account information to break into their account and send damaging messages
  • Pretending to be someone else online to hurt another person
  • Taking unflattering pictures of a person and spreading them through cell phones or the Internet
  • Sexting, or circulating sexually suggestive pictures or messages about a person

According to The Cyberbullying Research Center, the following findings reveal the extent of cyber bullying:

  • Over 80% of teens use a cell phone regularly, making it the most popular form of technology and a common medium for cyber bullying
  • About half of young people have experienced some form of cyber bullying, and 10% to 20% experience it regularly
  • Mean, hurtful comments and spreading rumors are the most common type of cyber bullying
  • Girls are as likely as boys to be cyber bullies to their victims
  • Boys are more likely to be threatened by cyber bullies than girls
  • Cyber bullying affects all races
  • Cyber bullying victims are more likely to have low self-esteem and to consider suicide


Actions Needed By Child Serving Providers

Providers need to become aware of the effects of social media usage and quality of interactions by our clients. We must recognize that negative experiences incurred by comparison to others on social media can lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. Organizations working with children need to keep in mind that bullying of any kind can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and thoughts of suicide (this is significantly higher among youth that are bullied). We must include this potential issue in our overall client analysis and assessment. We must also address these issues in our treatment planning and implementation. In treatment sessions, we must make efforts to discuss social media use with our clients and provide much needed education on the benefits and risks of social media. By making clients more aware of what to expect and the possible pitfalls, it can improve their chances of having positive interactions as opposed to negative ones.

Final Thoughts

I believe we will see increased focus on the effects of social media, and how it positively and negatively contributes to our well-being. It is important for us to remain informed regarding this subject as it is something that all providers in the health and human service industry need to address with its clients. Social media as a means of communication for everyone is not a passing trend, but will continue to evolve. I will keep you posted as I continue to review the research. Please share with me how your organization is addressing the contributing factors of social media for your client’s mental health and recovery.


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