A few months ago, I wrote a letter to a friend whose sibling committed suicide.
This is the first of three posts based on that letter.
In this post, I’ll explain why use of social media may lead to more symptoms of depression and ADHD.
Social media is an agent for symptoms of depression partially because interaction with the news feed streamlines peer comparison — what is known in the psychology community as fantasy social comparison — which we know contributes to symptoms of depression through social anxiety: feelings of inferiority and insecurity after subconsciously contrasting romanticized, glorified projections of others with our isolated selfs behind the electric screen. Moreover, people are motivated to interact with social media in the first place in conditions of weakness and stress, so that selective turnout bias inflames the consequences of that fantasy social comparison.
What also contributes to depression is that users then tend to respond to the social anxiety from fantasy social comparison by seeking external validation, by uploading content. At best this leads to externalized self esteem with content that has been publicly supported and at worst backfires (when validation does not arrive). Even if validation does arrive, externalized self esteem on social media deprecates, rather than reinforces, internal self esteem. The content being validated is typically not representative of our inner selves. You are deriving self worth from something that is not your core self.
As a result, we have seen in experimental longitudinal studies in and out of the U.S that increased use of social media may be causally connected to increased symptoms of depression. This is because, as explained, the user experience tends towards being a feedback loop around two axes: social fantasy comparison and externalized self esteem, which we both know are causes of depression.
Now, interaction with social media is also an agent of ADHD. Paranoia of digital public social interaction motivates us to constantly check social media for notifications, to reduce anxiety of digital public social interaction.
Notifications transmute awareness of digital public social interaction. Checking for their presence alleviates anxiety of digital public social interaction. Either we don’t have notifications and we don’t have digital public social interaction, or we do have them, and we can immediately check to see what happened. We can take action to reduce cost from harmful digital interaction (like by removing a comment), or enjoy the ego inflating excitement from receiving positive digital public social interaction.
The issue is that these notifications — which we check to reduce anxiety from public vulnerability — arrive in unpredictable time periods. Our interaction with unpredictable notifications becomes obsessive, like our interaction with all variable rewards. So we constantly check social media with the core purpose of checking for notifications, which provides gratification from reducing anxiety from receiving positive or negative public digital social interaction.
The desire to monitor notifications, alongside the unpredictability with which they will arrive, drives the compulsive checking of social media, partially explaining why we engage with social media to the degree we do despite the psychological consequences from using social media that we know in our hearts and have seen now from studies.
The issue underlying vulnerability, which drives obsession with notifications, is the permanence of comments alongside our maximalist content culture and “friend” culture. Because of comments, we are vulnerable in the content we upload. And with people combatting social anxiety from peer comparison on the news feed by uploading content, we upload lots of content vulnerable to those comments in a semi public way. And we have an artificially large number of friends, increasing our perception of vulnerability online: vulnerability not just in terms of how people can interact with our content, but also in how other’s understandings of ourselves can change from public interaction with our content — particularly for the long tail of “friends” on social networks that do not know us well.
Because of vulnerability to permanent public interaction online, visible by such a large audience of people, we continually check social media to reduce anxiety from that vulnerability, resulting in symptoms of ADHD and continuous distraction.
My general conclusion is that interaction with social media definitely may be driving mental health issues being observed today, to a greater degree than most believe. This is especially true for young girls, most vulnerable to the consequences of fantasy social comparison and the loop between social fantasy comparison and externalized self esteem that I have described.
In the book I am working on, I explain this more. I go into the interaction design of social media and how it motivates people to upload the superficial content that fuels fantasy social comparison and then the uploading of more content to seek validation). I go into how the interaction design can change to make the content culture more authentic. I go into the conflict of interest between social media’s business needs and users’ needs. I provide strategies for reshaping use of social media — to keep it while not being exposed to its negative consequences — for those who have been impacted.
Study on causal connection between use of social media and unhappiness: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0069841