So­cial me­dia might be a boon for men­tal health

Re­search finds on­line posts help many get emo­tional sup­port

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - TRENDING - Natalie Jacewicz

It was 1:30 a.m., and Anna was try­ing to keep her mind off her ex-boyfriend, with whom she had ended a painful re­la­tion­ship hours ear­lier. It was too late to call the ther­a­pist she was see­ing to cope with low self-es­teem and home­sick­ness and too late to stop by a friend’s house.

So she turned to so­cial me­dia. “I’m hav­ing a re­ally hard time right now,” Anna — who asked to be iden­ti­fied by a pseu­do­nym — posted on Face­book. “Is there any­one I can call and talk to un­til I feel bet­ter?”

Al­most im­me­di­ately, three peo­ple re­sponded with of­fers to talk. They were friends she had met play­ing Quid­ditch, a sport based on the Harry Pot­ter fan­tasy books, and she kept in touch with them on­line. Anna talked to two of them un­til she was able to fall asleep.

“I used to be very shy about post­ing per­sonal stuff on Face­book be­cause I didn’t want peo­ple judg­ing me,” said Anna, 26. “But that night, I was in such a bad place; I was desperate, and I thought any­thing would help.”

The neg­a­tive ef­fects of so­cial me­dia on young peo­ple’s men­tal health are well-doc­u­mented by re­searchers and the news me­dia. So­cial me­dia can drive envy and de­pres­sion, enable cy­ber bul­ly­ing, and spread thoughts of sui­cide.

Some aca­demics and ther­a­pists pro­pose a counter view: They say so­cial me­dia can help im­prove men­tal health by boost­ing self-es­teem and pro­vid­ing a source of emo­tional sup­port.

“We need to think about so­cial me­dia as not be­ing ab­so­lutely good or bad,” said Amy Gon­za­les, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor who stud­ies so­cial me­dia and health at In­di­ana Univer­sity’s Me­dia School. “We need to think about how to come up with ap­pro­pri­ate uses of this stuff.”

So­cial me­dia have be­come in­te­gral to the lives of young adults and teens: 45% of teenagers say they use apps such as Face­book, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram daily.

In re­search pub­lished by the Na­tional Cen­ter for Biotech­nol­ogy In­for­ma­tion, Gon­za­les found that col­lege stu­dents who viewed their own Face­book pro­files en­joyed a boost in self-es­teem af­ter­ward.

By cu­rat­ing their on­line per­sonas to re­flect their best traits — choos­ing flat­ter­ing pic­tures and shar­ing ex­cit­ing ex­pe­ri­ences — users re­mem­ber what they like best about them­selves.

“It’s like the way you might feel good about your­self when you check your­self out in the mir­ror be­fore a date,” Gon­za­les said.

Other stud­ies re­veal that peo­ple feel more so­cial sup­port when they present them­selves hon­estly on so­cial me­dia and tend to feel less stressed af­ter they do so.

“You get much broader af­fir­ma­tion by post­ing on so­cial me­dia than from call­ing a rel­a­tive,” Anna said. “It’s one thing if you text a friend; it’s an­other thing if you have a bunch of peo­ple try­ing to help you out.”

Matthew Oran­sky, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of ado­les­cent psy­chi­a­try at Mount Si­nai Hos­pi­tal in New York City and a prac­tic­ing ther­a­pist, said many of his pa­tients find so­cial con­nec­tions on­line they could not find else­where. This is par­tic­u­larly true of marginal­ized teens, such as kids in foster homes and LGBT ado­les­cents.

“I’ve seen some of the re­ally big pos­i­tives, which is that kids who are iso­lated can find a community,” Oran­sky said. “They’re of­ten first able to come out to on­line friends.”

In a sur­vey in 2013, 50% of LGBT youth re­ported hav­ing at least one close friend they knew only from on­line in­ter­ac­tions.

Young adults with se­ri­ous men­tal ill­ness such as schizophre­nia and bipo­lar dis­or­der can find so­cial sup­port via so­cial me­dia, ac­cord­ing to a study pub­lished in 2016.

Par­ents should help their chil­dren use so­cial me­dia wisely, ex­perts said. Oran­sky sug­gested that par­ents talk with kids about the pri­vacy con­se­quences of post­ing com­pro­mis­ing ma­te­rial, such as per­sonal de­tails that might af­fect their job prospects.

Anna said she uses fil­ters to keep co-work­ers from see­ing her men­tal health posts.

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