The ‘inward emptiness’ of social media
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