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Combat the Downsides of Social Media

September, 2012
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Recently, the Associated Press published an article on a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression.” The condition can be described as becoming upset by Facebook content and an inability to cope with the emotional impact. Though “Facebook depression” is a relatively new discovery, the fact that the condition exists doesn’t surprise me.

The Impact of Screen Time

Researchers haven’t conclusively decided whether this condition is just an extension of depression or whether it is a whole new condition uniquely associated with Facebook. Whatever the case, people (usually kids and teens) have been spending progressively more time in front of screens, thereby taking themselves more frequently out of healthy social contexts. Whether it’s Facebook or a BBC educational program, the simple deprivation of face-to-face social interaction is harmful to people.

Facebook depression tends to impact kids more through negative feedback; and this makes sense. Things said online are written for posterity, so it’s harder to ignore conflicts and hurtful comments. Being online a lot has negative physiological consequences, too. According to a 2010 University of Bristol study, the number of hours that kids spend in front of a screen – any screen – directly correlates with their psychological difficulties. Furthermore, the study shows that exercise does nothing to mitigate the damage. This makes sense too. There is a lot of nonverbal communication that aids development in people and helps stress management. Though some might argue that Facebook still involves a degree of social contact, Facebook doesn’t reduce stress in any meaningful way.

What’s NOT Happening

Considering this condition from a clinical standpoint, I’m more interested in what is NOT happening than in what is. Kids are especially prone to develop Facebook depression when they don’t have a strong sense of self. A strong sense of self comes from having a loving, nurturing, caring family (or immediate social network). When parents are not present, kids don’t feel nurtured. If kids feel loved and accepted, they aren’t as strongly affected by social feedback – it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is negative (e.g., bullying) or positive (e.g., having lots of friends on Facebook). In the case of bullying, kids become “activated” (nervous, anxious, upset) and don’t know how to cope. But even in the case of getting positive affirmation from Facebook, kids are still not establishing real face-to-face interactions and come to rely unhealthily on the fickle nature of peer evaluation.

Some might say that social media networks like Facebook do provide social interaction and support. Granted, Facebook isn’t called a “social media network” for no reason. However, I’ve observed that kids who are obsessed with Facebook – and are more prone to suffer from Facebook depression – tend to lack healthy parent-child relationships. Again, it’s more about what’s NOT happening. Peer affirmation and support are great, but being loved, nurtured, and empowered aren’t things peers can do for each other. If you think of those “wimpy kid finds redemption” movies (e.g., The Karate Kid), they’re all about relationships helping kids to build confidence and a stronger sense of self.

What Parents Can Do

As with many things, the earlier parents can intervene, the better. Addressing Facebook depression with a teenager will be more difficult than addressing it with younger children. Therefore, it’s better to address relationship issues that could lead to conditions like Facebook depression when children are younger. Before you rule out the possibility of Facebook depression because you think your child is too young, I would advise you to reconsider. Yes, Facebook has age requirements. But as I have a niece that had a Facebook account at the age of 9, it seems the security controls can’t be THAT difficult to circumvent.

I’m not suggesting that you run surveillance on your kids, but there are some practical things you can do to keep your kids emotionally healthy. Help put healthy boundaries on their online activity by limiting the time they spent on the internet. For instance, you could limit them to a maximum of one to two hours on a school night and perhaps allowing a bit more on weekends. Reinforce one-to-one interaction with your kids, which is just a good idea anyway. Do things together with them, have meals together, just be present.

All parents should be thinking about how to become more involved in their kids’ lives. If friction already exists in your relationship with your child, don’t lose heart. Your reconciliation process may just take a bit more time. Remember that you can’t force a relationship or make kids spend time with you. Use attraction, not force.

The salient factor in preventing addictions is healthy parenting. Try to be aware of what your kids are getting from the internet that they’re not getting from you. Try to maximize opportunities for your kids to interact with other kids and families. Our bodies weren’t designed to spend hours online. Give your kids the attention they deserve so that you can help prevent them from trying to get it from other sources.

And, as always, if you’d like to talk about any of this in more detail, please don’t hesitate to contact me or one of our counselors in the BJU Psychological Health Center at (10) 5927 7067.

 

By Dr. Rob Blinn, PhD

 Clinical Psychologist & Department Chair

Psychological Health Center

Beijing United Family Hospital

 

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