Youth depression is becoming a noticeable issue nationwide. The rate at which teenagers and young adults report depression has been on the rise for some time now, and some evidence suggests that social media may be one of the reasons why.
Researchers have found a correlation between social media use and the rising rates of youth depression. While that may not necessarily mean that one causes the other, it does suggest that the two are linked.
Could social media be causing depression in today’s youth? Take a look at some of the elements of social media that may be impacting youth depression.
How Social Media Impacts Self-Esteem
One reason that social media may be negatively affecting youth depression rates may have to do with the way social media sites affect users’ self-esteem.
While heavy social media users – especially young users – are often accused of revealing much more than is necessary or prudent online, the fact is that most users carefully curate their social media postings. They take care to post their most flattering pictures of themselves, their most interesting activities, their most carefully thought-out opinions, jokes, or messages.
What’s more, posts that contain beautiful images, interesting activities, well-argued ideas or funny jokes tend to get more attention and interaction, which makes those posts more visible to other users.
The result is that users scrolling through their social media feeds tend to see the best images of the people that they follow. They see their contacts’ most popular posts and most interesting or attractive pictures or videos and most articulate thoughts.
This can give a user the impression that the people they follow are just always attractive, interesting, and articulate.
Users know that they themselves sometimes have bad hair days, weeks where nothing interesting happens to them, and times when they can’t think of a funny retort or articulate argument, but they don’t see others having those experiences.
This can make some social media users feel inadequate and insecure.
They may begin to see themselves as less attractive, less interesting, or less intelligent than others because they’re comparing their full knowledge of themselves and their own lives to the curated window that they get into the lives of the people they follow.
It’s important to remind young people that what they see on social media isn’t the whole story and that just because someone seems to have it all on social media doesn’t mean that they really do.
Social Media, Isolation, and FOMO
FOMO, or “fear of missing out” is a phenomenon that’s related to the idea that other social media users may be superior in some way.
Users experience FOMO when they scroll through their feeds and notice that all of their contacts seem to be experience something they are not experiencing – for example, a high schooler might notice many of their contacts posting pictures from a party that they themselves did not attend, and perhaps were not invited to. This might cause them to feel left out, and feel that they’re missing out.
Social media users may experience FOMO even when they have busy and active social lives themselves. It’s easy to imagine that what other people are doing and experiencing is more interesting and exciting than what you yourself are doing.
This is true for the same reason it’s easy to feel inferior to another user’s attractive selfies on a day when you don’t feel attractive yourself – you don’t know the whole story.
People who are experiencing FOMO are still seeing curated content, so the experiences that other people are having may appear to be more exciting and interesting than the ones they’re having, even if that’s not really the case.
Occasional FOMO is normal, but when a social media user constantly experiences FOMO, they may also feel isolated – as if everyone they know is busy and active and those people aren’t inviting them to participate.
Feelings of isolation can contribute to depression. Young people may need to be encouraged to be proactive about putting away the electronics and creating their own experiences and reaching out to connect with other people instead of continuing to watch their social media timelines.
Do Social Media Connections Lack Depth?
Another possibility is that the connections that people form on social media aren’t as emotionally satisfying as face-to-face connections.
Humans crave deep, empathetic connections with other humans.
And while previous generations might have spent more time communicating in person, many young people today communicate with others primarily through digital means – either through text message or instant message or on social media sites.
Some people may feel that these connections lack depth and leave users unsatisfied and hungering for deeper human contact, which may lead to depression.
However, whether or not social media connections are emotionally satisfying enough may depend on the person.
Young people who have difficulty connecting to others in-person for any reason – because of disabilities that limit accessibility or because of geographical isolation, for example – may find social media to be a kind of lifeline that brings them much more human connection than they had previously, or than they would have in other circumstances.
Social media also allows people with niche interests to find each other more easily than they would have otherwise.
This can meet a variety of needs – from allowing people with obscure or unusual hobbies to connect and discuss their interests to helping people with rare illnesses to find each other and form support groups.
Many people do report forming strong friendship bonds with people who they meet online.
What Solutions Are Available?
Parents can help by encouraging young people to prioritize face-to-face interactions with local friends as well as their social media interactions, and by helping them to find offline outlets for indulging their interests and hobbies and finding support when possible.
While social media has quickly become a nearly indispensable tool for most people, it’s still a relatively recent innovation, and it’s not certain what long-term impacts its use may have on young people. It’s important for parents to keep an eye out for signs of depression in young people and consider the impacts that social media may be having on their mental state.