Social media is getting old. But we have only recently started to see the effect it's having on mental health. Not only are they confirmed by research, but are obviously also confirmed by all of us who work with clients and patients in psychotherapy. Research linking depression and social media shows a positive correlation between the two.
Where research still lacks to provide an answer is what the chicken and what the egg is - does social media use cause depression or does depression result in more engagement online. A closer look into psychotherapy theory and what some of us encounter in therapy room can provide a bit more insight to this question.
The power of identification
Identification seems to be at the root of depression associated with social media. As humans we are social creatures and need human interaction and recognition as part of our basic needs. The rise of technology and internet started messing with this. But it was only with the rise of social media when people started using it to meet their social needs.
People identify themselves with their jobs, their family roles, their possessions, their social roles. One can be the mother, the parent, the rich one, the lawyer, or in the case of Sartre - the waiter. All these are aspects of identification.
Excessive identification when someone places too much value in whatever they identify themselves with rather than into themselves is in itself a problem. That's why you will have entrepreneurs who fail consider themselves failures rather than a person that that failed - and this is just one of numerous examples. Once the source of identification is broken, a person will obviously lose all self-esteem and sense of validation, which is a fertile ground for depression.
Social media took identification further. It brought it online. It simplified it. We started putting up profiles that represent us in the world out there. We started pimping ourselves up in the way we wanted to be seen. We withdrew ourselves from the world and replaced ourselves with avatars which we control from the comfort of our own homes--or conveniently from a coffee shop sipping that latte and polishing our profiles.
Depression is just the next step in this matrix
Our avatars are placed out there to represent us. They are the extensions of our real selves--often times cherished more than the real thing. They get liked, commented, endorsed, viewed. The more they do, the better we feel--the more important we feel. The sense of identity is transferred to our avatars. If they are hurt, it hurts us. If they are bullied, we are the ones that cry. If they are recognised, liked, we feel worthy. All this is a recipe for social media addiction and depression.
Today we live in a world where whole communities are built online. They live and interact in the way that doesn't resemble anything real anymore. When a person is subject to such interaction, they will only see the polished profiles of their peers - the profiles that have little to do with reality, but rather represent their polished masks. People put up only what they want to be represented by. So, it's not hard to see how self-esteem of an onlooker can be diminished by comparing themselves to this online repertoire of perfection.
When you have someone turn to social media to fuel their basic human needs for intimacy, social interaction and recognition and when, at the same time they don't get all that online--or even get bullied, rejected, criticised--they will feel worthless, despaired. Notifications can be of addictive nature because they are like little units of recognition. Once you have someone depend on their social media notifications and likes to feel close to another person and they are at the same time not getting them, that calls for trouble.
When depressed, you turn to social media
When depression occurs, especially one that is associated with social media, the chances someone will further increase their time spent online seem to be greater because that's the world they are familiar with and that's the environment they identify with. Also, it's easier to turn to social media when you're feeling you don't want to get out of bed than actually getting out and engage in real human relationships.
You turn to notifications and likes, which you don't get; you turn to see the amazing lives of others; all this to confirm to yourself that "it's pointless". It seems to be a self-fulfilling prophecy--the more social media, the more depression and, hence, the more social media.
Peers cannot substitute parents
Lack of parental involvement, especially in the lives of adolescents, is not helping solve this problem. On one hand younger generation is much more subjected to social media, since they were practically born with it. Whilst on the other hand, their sense of self is much more fragile and subject to influence and identification.
Social media is bringing communities of youngsters together on a much more massive scale than real life interaction could have. The amount of interaction is far greater. All this along with ever less involvement from parents is acting as parental substitute. Kids are bringing themselves up along with their peers, not their parents, which at the end furthers them away from the real world.
Solution? There is no quick one-off fix here. But given that the root of the problem is improper identification and poor self-esteem, self-awareness and reflection would definitely help. You might not see it, but personal development and growth will dissolve the majority of problems in your life.
Related article: Social Media Depression
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