The ‘in­ward empti­ness’ of so­cial me­dia

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Emma Tei­tel

In 1925, English nov­el­ist and out­cast Vir­ginia Woolf wrote about what hap­pens to a per­son when she spends her en­tire life try­ing to fit in.

“Once con­form, once do what other peo­ple do be­cause they do it,” Woolf wrote in The Com­mon Reader, a col­lec­tion of es­says, “and a lethargy steals over all the finer nerves and fac­ul­ties of the soul. She be­comes all outer show and in­ward empti­ness; dull, cal­lous and in­dif­fer­ent.”

Woolf, who com­mit­ted sui­cide in 1941, may have been writ­ing about con­form­ity in an age alien to the In­ter­net, but some­how she man­aged to cap­ture suc­cinctly in a sin­gle sen­tence the soul-numb­ing sen­sa­tion of too much time spent on so­cial me­dia.

In fact, “Outer show and in­ward empti­ness” could serve as the medium’s of­fi­cial tag line — not to men­tion the cap­tion be­neath ev­ery Twit­ter selfie of Kylie Jen­ner.

In the same vein, there are no words more pre­cise than “dull, cal­lous and in­dif­fer­ent” to de­scribe the emo­tional af­ter-ef­fect of scrolling your way into a funk on Face­book and In­sta­gram, where you’ve in­wardly be­grudged the suc­cess and beauty of other peo­ple, all the while at­tempt­ing to make your own ap­pear far greater than it ac­tu­ally is.

If hell is other peo­ple, then wretched­ness is other peo­ples’ news­feeds.

For proof, look no fur­ther than the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh School of Medicine, where re­searchers re­cently de­ter­mined via a large study (the first of its kind in the United States) that so­cial me­dia use is “sig­nif­i­cantly as­so­ci­ated with in­creased de­pres­sion.”

The study, con­ducted in 2014 and pub­lished this year, sam­pled nearly 1,800 Amer­i­can mil­len­ni­als — 19 to 32 years old — and con­cluded that more than a quar­ter had high in­di­ca­tors of de­pres­sion.

Par­tic­i­pants were given a de­pres­sion as­sess­ment tool kit and a ques­tion­naire about time spent on a hand­ful of the world’s most pop­u­lar so­cial me­dia plat­forms (in­clud­ing among oth­ers, Face­book, Twit­ter and In­sta­gram). And what do you know: Those who used so­cial me­dia most fre­quently were 2.7 times more likely to be de­pressed than their less-ac­tive peers. This re­sult sur­prised the re­searchers.

“We had ex­pected a U-shaped curve, with a higher risk of de­pres­sion be­ing cor­re­lated with no so­cial me­dia use at all or ex­ces­sive use,” says Dr. Brian Pri­mack, se­nior au­thor of the study and di­rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Pitts­burgh Cen­ter for Re­search on Me­dia, Tech­nol­ogy and Health.

“But in­stead what we found was a straight line. More so­cial me­dia use was as­so­ci­ated with more de­pres­sion in a lin­ear fash­ion.” Pri­mack ac­knowl­edges that the study did not dis­en­tan­gle cause and ef­fect. “It may be,” he says, “that peo­ple who al­ready are de­pressed are turn­ing to so­cial me­dia to fill a void.”

Or it may be that the more you use so­cial me­dia, the sad­der you feel; or to bor­row from Woolf, the emp­tier you be­come. Why is this?

Pri­mack sug­gests the usual sus­pects: “Highly ideal­ized rep­re­sen­ta­tions of peers on so­cial me­dia may elicit feel­ings of envy and the dis­torted be­lief that oth­ers lead hap­pier, more suc­cess­ful lives.” There’s also cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, he says (though it is much less preva­lent among adults), “and other sim­i­lar neg­a­tive re­ac­tions.”

All of this may be true. But I sus­pect there is an­other, less ob­vi­ous cul­prit be­hind so­cial-me­dia-in­duced de­pres­sion.

Which is that the most prom­i­nent so­lu­tion to the prob­lem is a Catch-22: We live in an age sat­u­rated with ma­jor, cor­po­rate-spon­sored, men­tal health aware­ness cam­paigns (for ex­am­ple, Bell Let’s Talk), that are well-mean­ing and for some, ef­fec­tive. They dom­i­nate our news­feeds and com­mand the at­ten­tion of our po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, mu­si­cians and sports heroes. But the short­fall of these cam­paigns and the trou­bling irony in­her­ent in them is that they live al­most ex­clu­sively on so­cial me­dia, the very plat­form that may cause and ac­cel­er­ate de­pres­sion. Put an­other way, the pre­vail­ing an­ti­dote and the dis­ease are, for the time be­ing, in­ex­orably linked.

This doesn’t mean un­plug­ging and seek­ing as­sis­tance off­line away from so­cial me­dia is a sure­fire route to in­creased men­tal health (Woolf, for ex­am­ple, never used the In­ter­net, and she wasn’t we know well, a happy per­son).

But con­scious, mon­i­tored, and yes lim­ited, use may be a good place to start.

An­other place, Pri­mack sug­gests, may be in doc­tor’s of­fices, where as a so­ci­ety, we can en­cour­age clin­i­cians “to ask about so­cial me­dia use among peo­ple who are de­pressed.” Who knows: “How of­ten do you en­gage in po­lit­i­cal de­bates on Face­book?” may be a med­i­cal ques­tion as rel­e­vant to a per­son’s over­all health as “Do you eat your veg­eta­bles?”

In the end, if we are to take any­thing away from the study, Pri­mack says, it is to en­sure we are us­ing so­cial me­dia “for im­prov­ing life and not in­ad­ver­tently de­tract­ing from it.” Af­ter all, outer show and in­ward empti­ness wasn’t fun in 1925 and it cer­tainly isn’t fun today. Emma Tei­tel is a na­tional colum­nist.

Mil­len­ni­als who used so­cial me­dia most fre­quently were more likely to be de­pressed

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