Exploring the Effects of Social Media on Depression and Suicide
I have grown up in a generation of social media users. Facebook, one of the most popular social media sites, was founded in 2004, when I was three. Four years later it had 100 million active users. Today, Facebook has 2.27 billion active users worldwide. Not only has Facebook’s popularity significantly increased but so has social media use in general. In 2010, 97 million people were social media users, today it’s 2.62 billion worldwide. And, it is estimated that 81% of the US population has a social media profile and the average person spends five years of his/her life on social media (Gordon).
Ever since my childhood I have been exposed to social media. Both my parents are Facebook users and my older sister was the one to help me make my first snapchat account, it was as if my family introduced social media to me, rather than society. This is common among most of my peers as well; social media has become the norm, past time activity, and for some has become an addiction.
That said, it is clear that the increase in technology has improved social media. Now there are hundreds of different social networking sites that people of any age can choose from, as long as they have a way of accessing it. Social media is beginning to expand beyond just the millennials who invented it. Now studies have shown that almost half of 11-12 year olds have a social media account and my grandparents know how to work their facebook accounts, better than their TV (Gordon). While it might not necessarily be all bad to have a range of ages on social media, there have to be some consequences.
Throughout high school, many of my friends and I have experienced depression. Whether it be small feelings of sadness or serious (possibly major) depressive symptoms, depression is very common in adolescents. At my school I know of many other people dealing with depression, and other mental illnesses such as: anxiety, drug abuse, and even suicidal thoughts or attempts. While my depression is occasional and not that serious, I always wonder, what could be causing me to feel so upset when I have such a great life? How could someone like me and other kids at my school who live in a wealthy, fun city with happy families be struggling so much?
While there are some obvious and unfortunate life circumstances or biological factors that can explain some peoples’ disorders, a lot of times there aren’t. What could be the cause behind such horrible disease in people so young? To answer this question I constantly blame social media. It is made up of “perfect” people’s profiles and centered around the idea that less is not more. Social media can be a constant battle of showing off more money, more clothes, and more fame, to more followers at all times. How could this not lead to peer pressure, and the desire to fit in?
I was briefly exposed to this topic in my media studies class my sophomore year and helping many friends with depression and even experiencing it sometimes myself, I have always been interested in studying the effects of something as prominent in my life as social media. After seeing research on the addiction of social media and the increase in teen mental illnesses, I formulated a question. To help me understand myself, my peers and what social media is doing to us, I want to answer: what are the effects of social media on teen depression and suicide, and to what extent can it be prevented?
To begin researching my topic I had to first understand depression and suicide. According to the book, Ordinary People, by Moss, depression is defined as a psycho neurotic or psychotic disorder in which an individual is overcome with extreme feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and dejection. Depending on the individual and his particular set of circumstances, this affliction can strike at any age and can be triggered by any number of different factors. Depression can also range from a small feeling of sadness to serious feelings of depression. While many people experience moments of sadness throughout their lives, many people also struggle with major depression, which is the diagnosis of severe sadness that has been ongoing and interferes with one’s daily life. Most cases of major depression are developed and diagnosed in adolescents, and around 50% of adolescents who have major depression are diagnosed before reaching adulthood (Zuckerbrot). This showing that their depression becomes apparent and could have been triggered in adolescence.
While depression affects many people, there are many ways to recover from experiencing it, like antidepressants, psychotherapeutic treatment and more (Adolescents). However for some, they are unable to deal with their feelings, which can result in suicide. Normally, suicidal behaviour has shown to significantly correlate with multiple other mental disorders, such as: depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and affective disorders (Carli). When people are experiencing unfamiliar feelings, usually associated with different mental disorders, they don’t know how to deal with their feelings and they see death as the only way out. Especially younger people, while experiencing many physical and social changes due to adolescents, and new social and academic pressure, they are overwhelmed and confused with how they are feeling and see suicide as a permanent response, not a solution, to a temporary problem. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “The events that lead to a suicide attempt can vary from person to person, a common theme that many suicide attempt survivors report is the need to feel relief. At desperate moments, when it feels like nothing else is working, suicide may seem like the only way to get relief from unbearable emotional pain” (Cartlidge).
While adolescents struggle with hormonal and emotional changes during their educational years, is it enough to explain the amount of major depression and suicides in people so young? I interviewed a middle school counselor, Kelly McCarthy, to ask about how prevalent mental illness was in children so young. She explained that, “” It was so uncommon to hear of kids feeling this way (depressed or suicidal), I mean I was in high school only 10 years ago, and it was just really uncommon. There were a few suicides when I was in high school but before then it wasn’t really a thing.”” She described that she felt as though kids nowadays throw around the idea of being depressed and claim they want to kill themselves, when really they don’t know the severity of those feelings and what those mental illnesses really mean. Along with what Ms. McCarthy has witnessed, many research has shown an overall decrease in the mental wellbeing of people in the United States, specifically adolescents. This appeared in all walks of life, races, backgrounds, countries, etc. The research analysis found that the generation of teens, that they call “”iGen”” (those born after 1995) are much more likely to experience mental-health issues. They stated that, “”In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless, classic symptoms of depression, surged 33 percent. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent and, the number of 13-to-18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent” (Teenage Depression). I also interviewed a Wellness Intake Specialist, Cheryl Staton, who mentioned “When I first started here (working at a high school), I was very busy. I had 1-2 children a week going to the hospital feeling very depressed, suicidal or having suicidal ideations… I was busy everyday.”” How come Ms. McCarthy only became familiar with mental illness once she began studying it, why does research show an increase within the last 10 years and why is Ms. Stanton constantly dealing with depressed and suicidal kids at the highschool level? What could be causing this sudden increase in mental illness?
Being that technology and mental illnesses have a direct relationship, and both rapidly increased within the last few years, social media could be one of the main causes of adolescent mental illness. With the rise of the technology, more an more people are continuously buying smartphones which have 24/7 access to the internet. Thus making the internet the main path of communication between teenagers, which can lead to addiction. Along with mental disorders, social media addiction has become another disorder among teens and can have many negative symptoms (Deep). In fact, one study found that social media can be more addictive than cigarettes or alcohol (McDaniels). Being that kids feel like they need to be online all the time, it interferes with their desire to interact with people in person, because why walk to your sisters room next door when you can just call her? However, “interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows” (Teenage Depression), this showing that when kids aren’t online they can feel lonely. When kids feel lonely it was found to be associated with a wide range of mental health problems, and had a particularly strong relationship with depression and anxiety (Richardson).
This shows that social media can lead to poor communication skills, causing feelings of loneliness, which can then trigger depression and later lead suicidal thoughts or actions. While, that might not be the clear cut path to adolescent mental health, it has shown to be connected in many ways. The article Teenage Depression found that, “teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent only one hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor, depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide.” In fact there is now a term for social media induced mental illness; the concept of “”Facebook depression”” was first developed in 2011 and is defined as “depression that begins with an extreme amount of social media usage and subsequent development of the classic symptoms of depression” (Guinta). Also, social media can impacts sleep quality, influence self-esteem issues and increase anxiety which have all been correlated with depression and suicide (Mozes). Finally, many suicide cases have been connected to online harassment as well. For example, 14 year old Denise Gleason commited suicide in 2016. Her mother stated, “bullies posted several mean-spirited comments about Destiny on Facebook; after reading the postings, Destiny went into her bedroom and hanged herself.” And, like Destiny, 15 year old Tovonna Holton shot herself due to extreme embarrassment from a snapchat posting.
Cases like Destiny and Tovonna are extreme, but they do happen. Fortunately the internet isn’t all bad in the fact that they have many suicide prevention websites to help struggling adolescents like Destiny and Tovonna. Scott Campbell, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan claimed, “”kids are getting a lot of social support through social media,”” (Mozes) and the internet in general can provide health information, serve as a platform for education, social networks and support, entertainment, and provide mental health promotion and prevention programs as well (Carli). However, many kids are not drawn to health programs and, instead, look at and engage in inappropriate or negative things online. For instance, cyberbullying has become a major issue online and has been found to lead to depression and suicide. Studies done, in the United States, in 2014 showed that 72% of 12-17 year olds had encountered cyberbullying in their life and kids were 12% more likely to experience cyberbullying as compared to 2010. In just a four year difference, the amount of cyberbullying increased significantly. This study also found that cyberbullying may negatively impact the victim’s self-esteem and can have negative effects on emotions which can lead to depression. In extreme cases, it found that cyberbullying could even lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts (Van Hee).
Being that social media is so accessible, how can new generations of children be protected from these negative effects of social media? When my two interviewees were asked this questions, both of their first comments were to get off the phone. Both women said to do activities to improve your wellness, join sports at school to interact with more people or read a book to expand your vocabulary. Just simply getting off your phone more can decrease anxiety levels and raise self-esteem which gives you a better chance of not developing mental illnesses. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests, “limiting total screen time to less than 2 hours per day and avoiding screen time for infants younger than 2 years” (Children). However, because our world revolves around technology, there are other things to do on your smartphones if you just can’t set it down. Ms. Stanton listened many mindful apps that can replace harsh social media platforms, such as; buddha quote apps, calming apps, yoga apps, Headspace, which is a meditation app, and there are even apps to help you sleep. Any of these can help children stray away from social media and focus on their wellbeing when their are on their cell phones.
While both of these options are alternatives to using social media, most kids will still want to have social media accounts. Which can be good to a certain extent, by providing ways of communication, but using it excessively can make it bad. A good way to ensure that a child isn’t obsessively and negatively using social media is to monitor their usage. The AAP recommends that parents co-view and discus content with their children and teens and carefully monitor media and programming that their children and teens use or watch (Children).
Unfortunately, children can also work around their parents rules and negatively use the internet outside of their home while being unsupervised. That being the case, prevention of online harassment and excessive internet uses can be enforced outside of children’s homes by informing children of the consequences of social media addiction and cyberbullying. This could possibly limit their desire to want to participate in internet usage. For example, in school, all violence prevention programs, drug prevention programs, and sex education programs could contain a media component, given media’s contribution to the problems. Schools can also teach media literacy, which will give students the tools they need to survive in an increasingly technologically sophisticated world (Children).