Updated: Sep 4, 2019
When I was growing up, I was taught that depression was an attention-getting fluke- that people would just claim depression instead of taking responsibility for their lack of motivation or laziness. What I have learned since then proves that wrong in so many ways. While I personally have never experienced depression, I have several close personal relationships with people that do. While everyone experiences a lack of motivation sometimes or a desire to just be lazy every once in a while, this is nothing compared to depression. Depression is crippling, and it is on the rise.
Studies have shown a correlation between smartphone/social media usage and increased depression. To be clear, this is not saying that social media and smartphones are the cause of depression; rather that smartphone and social media usage are linked to depression. According to the Child Mind Institute, this can be a result of several factors, and there are steps you can take to help eliminate these factors. And, as usual, it comes back to balance.
The first factor is that human beings were designed to live in community (I apologize to my introverts out there). Survival for millennia has depended on that community. This is why the Bible sets the ultimate punishment as being cut off from your people, why the Catholic church responded to heresy with excommunication, and why banishment and exile has always been such an effective punishment. When people are isolated, their bodies shut down and enter survival mode. At this point, all we feel motivated to do is the things it takes to survive. In extreme cases, the body starts preparing itself to die. These latter responses are what we label depression. The isolation caused by lack of community makes our bodies shut down, and there is no motivation to do anything.
On this note, it should be easy to see how social media can contribute to the isolation that leads to depression. When people substitute their offline life for an online one, the addicting pleasure of the constant dopamine hits is just not enough to satisfy. It should be noted here that studies show that teens with an intense offline life that matches the intensity of their online life do not show the same levels of depression. In fact, they tend to be happy individuals. The trick here is balance.
Another factor is self esteem issues. For girls especially, the temptation to compare yourself with the perfect-looking people on social media can absolutely shoot your confidence. Many times, what we don’t realize is that the lives projected on social media are photoshopped and cropped and pinpointed to display exactly what they want to portray- perfection. Nobody is as perfect as they portray on social media. However, the typical response is to turn around and project our perfect and ideal lives on social media, carefully leaving out all the drama and pain and not-so-pretty moments. Of course, being perfect and happy on social media can make people more popular offline. The problem is that a fear of people discovering who you really are or what your life is really like can be crippling. It keeps deep meaningful relationships from being formed out of protecting the image. This, in turn, can mean that your offline life is just as shallow as your online life, which leads to further isolation.
The physical factors associated with depression can also be exacerbated by social media. While you are on social media, you are not engaging in activities that give you a sense of accomplishment. Sure, the notification, likes, and positive comments give you an addicting dopamine shot, but it is simply not enough to be truly satisfying. In addition, interacting with your cell phone at night and especially within the hour or so before bed can lead to as much as an hour or more of lost sleep. Think about how many times you were just going to check social media for a few minutes, and it ended up being hours later. Enough nights of this can lead to some pretty heavy sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation affects your awake time through motivation and productivity and kicks your body into further survival mode from exhaustion.
What can you do? If you struggle with depression or even if you just want to get the social media habit under control, the following are some helpful choices.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The key is balance. The correlation between social media and depression is not an excuse to throw your phone away or even to throw social media away. It is however, a warning to develop an offline life that at least matches the intensity of your online life. Even introverts can’t escape the human need for contact with other humans. Digital just doesn’t cut it.
Turn off your unnecessary notifications. Texts and calls may be left on but turn off social media notifications. In order to achieve a meaningful offline life, it can’t be constantly interrupted by the latest like or comment. Keep your online time where it belongs and don’t let it spill into your offline time.
Be aware of your responses to social media. If you are following someone on social media who just makes you angry with every word they post, unfollow them. Oh, and by the way, if that person happens to be a family member, remember that you have no obligation to interact with them on social media, especially if what they say just makes you angry. Be aware of days when you are feeling particularly vulnerable and stay off of social media those days. Realize when your brain is beginning to feel drunk on social media and take a break. Just like anything else, learn how you react to social media and act accordingly. Do what is healthy for you.
Make sure to have phone-free zones in the house and times of day. Here is a list of suggestions:
• No phones at family meals. That time should be spent interacting with one another.
• No phones at least an hour before bed. Use the time to read or do something else to wind down.
• No phones in the bedrooms at all. Seriously, buy an alarm clock. For one, you won’t be tempted to look at your phone if it is on the kitchen. And for two, you won’t be interrupted by notifications throughout the night. You will sleep much better.
• No phones during homework (or work or whatever else you need your whole brain engaged for). Phones are distracting, and multitasking does not exist. Rather, you are just exhausting your brain by pulling it in multiple directions back and forth. Instead, stick to the task until it is done and then spend some time on your phone.
The connection between social media and depression may be correlation rather than causation, but the connection is still clear. Connection and balance should help alleviate the problems associated with social media. I am in no way saying that this will cure depression or downplaying the difficulty of living with depression. All I am saying is that this should be a decent warning to learn to balance our lives both online and offline.