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Is Social Media Making People Depressed?

Steven Dubovsky (left) and Melanie Green. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

In a recent article in The Atlantic, psychology professor Jean M. Twenge argued that the rise of smartphones and social media has resulted in a mental health crisis among U.S. teenagers, evidenced by increased rates of everything from depression and anxiety to social isolation and sleep disorders. Some have responded to Twenge’s alarm with skepticism. We asked Melanie Green, an associate professor of communication who studies how online interactions influence real-life relationships, and Steven Dubovsky, professor and chair of psychiatry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, whether digital media could be causing an increase in depression.

Melanie Green: The history of the research on online communication is a history of mixed findings. You have studies saying: “This connects people!” You have studies saying, “No, this is horrible!” The literature suggests you have to be a little more nuanced about it. There are things people do online that can make them unhappy, and things they do that can contribute to their well-being.

Steven Dubovsky: From a clinical standpoint, the incidence and prevalence of depression have increased in every generation over the last century, and it accelerated after World War II. And in every generation since the war, there has been a decrease in the age of onset of depression. This is apparently not just related to diagnostic fads or better diagnosis. Obviously it started before anyone had heard of the Internet or smartphones. But how do you confirm the most likely factors? These are all association studies. One theory that seems to have relevance is assortative mating, which says that people with similar traits marry each other at a nonrandom rate. Rich people marry each other, Republicans marry each other, and depressed people marry each other at a greater-than-random rate. So you have an accumulation of genetic risk and environmental risk. There’s also recent evidence suggesting that untreated depression during pregnancy alters the physiology of the fetus in more or less permanent ways. Another possible genetic factor is something called anticipation, a phenomenon in which illnesses with a genetic component tend to occur earlier and have a more severe presentation in each subsequent generation.

MG: I agree that the data Twenge is drawing on are associative, and when you see an association, you can guess that one thing is influencing the other. But this may be a case of a third-variable problem, where something else may be influencing the data trends. That’s not to discount the negative effects that social media can cause. Cyberbullying and unrestrained aggression are certainly problematic.

SD: I think there has been a breakdown in society in general, where people feel free to unload on one another, and the Internet is just a reflection of that. Even before Facebook, when you had Listservs and chat rooms, people felt completely free to curse at each other. Like, you don’t even know me, and you’re screaming at me in capital letters.

MG: They’re screaming at you because they don’t know you—there aren’t going to be consequences. But even before things got so polarized, people were prone to social comparison on Facebook, which can be quite a negative because you end up feeling bad about yourself. This is where people post the most exciting thing they’ve done while you’re doing homework, thinking, “Oh, well, they’re in the Bahamas, enjoying themselves.” One thing that comes up in teaching classes with freshmen is the pressure to self-present. So it’s, “I’m going to the party, but the important thing is that I post a picture of myself at the party with my friends so that people know I have friends.” It’s about representing yourself as the person you want to be, and it can be a stressor to have to maintain that kind of impression.

SD: There is also a kind of addiction to visual things like video games and smartphones that some people are prone to. And if you’re predisposed in the right way, you’ll be so engaged by these types of experiences that it’s like being a narcotic addict, and you’ll prefer the jolt you get from that to the pleasure you get from human interaction.

MG: I think with social media it even goes beyond the visual component, because we have this need for a sense of belonging. In 2000 there was a book by a sociologist named Robert Putnam called “Bowling Alone,” which basically said everybody’s watching too much TV, and it’s reducing trust and connection. I wondered what was so compelling about TV that it could pull people away from their real relationships. Maybe it’s this tendency we have to get immersed in narrative. These stories are compelling, and also easy. They don’t carry the risks of real interaction.

SD: People also like different kinds of stories now. How many young people would watch “The Seventh Seal”? It’s black and white, it’s subtitled, it’s really complicated. Who’s got the time or patience for that these days? At the same time, when I was growing up, it was rock ’n’ roll that was ruining my generation. Adults said it was the worst thing ever, that Chuck Berry was the devil. But you know, most of us turned out OK.

How do you take your coffee?

Melanie: Actually, I drink tea.
Steven: So do I.