by Jeanni Brosius
Jocelyn Spencer has had an electronic device in her hands every day since she was 2. The now 10-year-old fifth grader has multiple social media accounts and interacts with “friends” that she’s never met.
Social media allows us to connect with friends and family, network with colleagues, stay up on world events or watch cute puppy videos. However, when people rely on Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram for their social interaction, it could affect their mental health.
In a 2014 study conducted by Brian A. Primack, M.D., Ph.D., he and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine questioned 1,787 adults ages 19 through 32 to establish a link between social media and depression.
According to the study’s results, those who frequented social media sites were 2.7 times more likely to experience depression compared to those who spent less time on the sites.
Rebecca F. Ward, a clinical social worker in private practice in Little Rock, says social media has a place — but it’s not as important as time with real friends in real settings.
“These virtual relationships are not real relationships, but written words, emojis and flip replies that replace a real connection with a virtual one,” Ward says. “Commercials of delicious food can make us hungry, but we cannot eat what we’re reading or seeing.”
Jocelyn has been a victim of cyberbullying, which has been linked to suicide.
“Jocelyn has had two friends who have been hospitalized after attempting suicide,” Mary Ellen Spencer says about her daughter. “This isn’t something elementary children should have to worry about.”
Because of the anonymous nature of social media, people are more harsh and insulting than they would be in a face-to-face conversation.
“Social media has a lot of power over self-esteem and feelings of inclusion or exclusion, which can lead to depression,” Ward says. “Many things are said on social media that might not be said in person or in a ‘live group’ and these can be hurtful and cruel.”
This can also lead to the social media user comparing themselves to others and judging their own popularity or worthiness by responses to their posts.
“They allow remarks from others to affect the way they see themselves,” Ward says. “Not much response leads them to think that perhaps they aren’t as desirable a person as someone else. They give great importance to how responsive people are to their posts.”
Spencer says parents should always be vigilant about what their kids are doing online and with whom they’re interacting.
“Talk to your kids and go through their phones if you believe something is going on,” Spencer says.
Ward agrees: “Parents should be privy to time spent on social media, what sites and who they are connecting with. Screen time should be limited. Notice how their moods are, their sleeping and eating routines, social outings with friends… If anything is off, talk to them.”
Parents should set an example by limiting their own time on social media and expecting their kids to follow. Set aside time limits for checking accounts. Have a device-free dinnertime and encourage activities that don’t include social media.
Because more than half of the population logs onto social media sites each day, these sites can easily offer a distraction for boredom. Some experts even consider it an addiction. Studies show that it’s so widespread that Cecilie Andreassen, Ph.D., at the University of Bergen in Norway and her colleagues developed a new measure called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale (BFAS).
According to Andreassen’s study, people who are anxious and socially insecure use social media more often because they may find it easier than communicating face-to-face. The study also found that people who are more organized and ambitious tend not to become addicted and are more likely to use social media as a networking tool.
“I think social media fits right into our cyber society with its many options, connections and interactions from the comfort of your own home, maybe your bed,” Ward says. “It’s a quick and easy way to not feel alone, though when you turn off the screen, aren’t you alone?
“[We’re] busy, busy people and time [is] a shrinking resource. We’ve invented a way to have friendships that don’t take up much real time. But it’s really pretty impersonal.”