You write posts on Facebook. You upload photos to Instagram. You retweet celebrities you follow on Twitter. So far, so normal, right?
Perhaps not. Using at least seven social media platforms makes you more than three times likelier to be at risk of developing depression and anxiety, compared with someone who uses no more than two platforms. That’s what a 2016 study by the Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh in the US found.
Should you be worried? Yes, because we’re among the most active social media consumers in the world. A 2016 report by global agency We Are Social found that Singapore had a social media penetration rate of 58 per cent.
Social media intensifies #fomo
Think social media is all about making connections and keeping in touch with them? It can actually make a person feel left out – a main factor in depression, says Joel Yang, psychologist and founder of Mind What Matters.
“Thanks to Whatsapp, Facebook and Instagram, you always know what your friends, family and colleagues are up to. That constant connection compounds your feelings of ‘fomo’, which is short for a fear of missing out”, says Joel.
It doesn’t help that everyone’s newsfeeds are a highlight reel of all the great stuff happening in their lives. Drawing comparisons between your life and all that online perfection could make you feel isolated and unhappy.
Social media is especially detrimental to someone who’s feeling particularly vulnerable, says Joel.
Take Mark*, a divorcee in his 40s. He was positive about the divorce at the start and had tried to move on. But regular status updates and photos posted by his ex-wife proved too much for him. He became convinced that she and their children were much happier after the separation, blamed himself for the break-up, and developed a sense of hopelessness about his own future. Mark eventually had to be treated for depression.
It gets in the way of real social connection
Ironically, while social media makes it more convenient to connect with loved ones and keep up with what’s going on in their lives, it could also hinder a person’s ability to interact with people in real life, says Jasmine Siang, psychologist and founder of Heart-to-Heart Psychotherapy.
Julia* learnt this first-hand. A self-professed misfit, the 20something joined many Facebook groups to expand her social circle. She got to know people and chatted with them online. But real life told a different story – unable to hide behind her laptop, she found she could not hold a good conversation with anyone.
So she retreated into her digital world, where she felt safer and more at ease. The ton of likes she got on her social media posts came at a cost: her social interactions lost both warmth and depth.
“Social media cannot be a substitute for the emotional affirmation you get from spending quality time with someone in person,” Jasmine explains. In fact, frequent and superficial social media interactions could prompt you to question the quality of your real-life relationships, and make you realise you have no one to turn to for comfort and support.
When it snowballs into something more serious
Julia’s emotional struggle got the best of her when she stopped going out to meet people. Her prolonged isolation quickly spiralled into depression.
But Joel clarifies that some people are more susceptible to feelings of sadness and despair, and that’s linked to factors like temperament, personality, or genetics.
Still, no one is immune.
“Thanks to social media, we are all bombarded with an onslaught of triggers for all these negative emotions,” he says.
You might not realise you’re depressed
Social media is an integral part of our lives – and that’s precisely what makes its depressive effect so insidious.
Even if you recognise that compulsively stalking your friends’ social media accounts is giving you grief, it’s hard to stop. And you might dismiss your feelings as normal.
Joel says: “Most people won’t seek professional help. They think, ‘This is silly, I don’t need to see a psychologist for problems that aren’t even real’.”
Of course, prevention is key. If social media is giving you the blues, remind yourself regularly that what you see there isn’t real life, says Joel. We say: Put down your phone, go outside, and have face-to-face social interactions instead so that you can truly feel #blessed.
*Names have been changed.
Look out for these symptoms
If you experience five or more of the following symptoms for at least two weeks, you could be suffering from major depressive disorder, and should seek help:
Persistent sadness, or feeling down and gloomy.
A loss of interest in activities you previously enjoyed – such as socialising with friends and family – most of the day, nearly every day.
Insomnia or sleeping more than normal.
Feeling restless and agitated more easily.
Unable to concentrate and think clearly.
Feelings of worthlessness and guilt.
Recurrent thoughts of death.
You can’t diagnose yourself online
Mobile apps and online resources claiming to provide diagnosis and treatment for depression make light of the condition, and could even make things worse, says Jasmine. “Many of these tools aren’t even backed by research. And they try to provide a one-size-fits-all solution, which simply doesn’t work. You need to work with a professional to figure out the best intervention for you.”
This story was originally published in the April 2017 issue of Her World.