Facebook Depression: Social Media is No Replacement for Social Interaction

By Brooke Randolph
In the discussion about “Facebook Depression” sparked from the Clinical Report published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, I tend to side with John Grohol who reminds us of the basic truth of research- that correlation does not equal causation, but I do think the relationship is more complicated than simply correlation or causation.
Facebook is the most widely spread social media platform with more than 500 million active users. My grandmother is on Facebook (primarily stalking us all – Hi, Grandma!). I know some elementary school students who use Facebook with their parent’s permission. I have friends in several different countries and time zones on Facebook. When we look at Facebook users, we are looking at a large section of the population of the world. We really cannot consider Facebook users a category of people to research.
Many years ago, before everyone and their grandmothers were on Facebook, I read and wrote about research which showed that while watching television, viewers were mildly depressed and anxious. Our brains are not satisfied with observing social interactions; we need to participate socially to obtain the benefits of having other people around us and in our line of sight. I would guess that the person who sits alone at a party not talking to anyone ends up feeling much the same way – left out and alone. Comments from friends, birthday messages, and event invites can make us smile or feel special; but it is no substitution for face to face interactions with people who care about us.

Friends who are adults have posted status messages and talked to me about how their mood has dropped after logging into Facebook, commenting on how Facebook makes it obvious that our friends have other friends. While this may seem obvious, in the natural world, we are not always exposed to all the fun photos, inside jokes, and tagged status updates that remind us that other people are just as important (or more so) to our friends than we are.
Adolescence is already a difficult time for many. Struggles with self-esteem often go hand in hand with the developmental stage of forming and defining one’s identity. This developmental stage also leads to grouping and the exclusion of others. As much as we may dislike it, cliques are developmentally functional for teenagers. Yet this part of development can lead to bullying, intolerance, and exclusion which can be painful for other teens trying to define their own identity and develop self esteem. Self-doubt, feeling left out, or hurt feelings can be exacerbated by what one can see on Facebook, including friend counts, interactions of others, and relationship status updates. The painful event is seeing your ex move on with someone else; Facebook may simply be the venue where you are exposed to that experience. Facebook is not a substitution for actual interaction with other people which is crucial for personal satisfaction. In addition, depression itself can cause us to isolate ourselves socially, limiting interactions to online media, and increasing the chances that we see our friends interacting with others more than they interact with us.
There are many reasons why we may see greater use of Facebook by those that also qualify for a diagnosis of depression, but it does not mean that Facebook causes depression. Facebook can exacerbate depression, but we can also be more likely to use Facebook when we are depressed. Whether the relationship between Facebook and depression is correlation, causation, or complicated, it’s important that we take responsibility for our socialization and our feelings, seeking the help of friends or a therapist when we start to feel down.