Much has been written and said about the role of Facebook and social media in our society. Only recently has the increasingly dark side of what was once thought to be a monumental transformation of humanity come into public discourse. Initially, the potential threats to privacy and the normal political process of our democracy grabbed the lion’s share of concern.
More recently, however, attention is turning towards the impact of social media on mental health. A number of research studies are accumulating that link the use of social media to mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even suicide. The most recent study was published in the Journal Lancet, a venerable British medical journal much like the New England Journal of Medicine in the United States. In its Child and Adolescent Health edition, the authors of this study suggested a particular impact on girls’ mental health through exposure to bullying, while causing a reduction in their sleep and physical exercise. We all know that disruption of sleep patterns and lack of exercise has a negative impact on mental as well as physical health, while frictionless exposure to harmful content may help fuel the fire. The frequency spent checking such platforms as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. was linked to teens’ psychological distress in this study.
What is even more troubling is that a recent U.S. study published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology of over 600 individuals, showed that the suicide rate has doubled in the teenage demographic between 2010 and 2017. One in approximately seven young people suffered a major depressive episode in the year 2017. For every successful death from suicide, countless others are “near misses.” The obvious correlation in the dramatic rise of social media between 2010 and 2017 and the teen suicide “epidemic” does not indicate causation, but it is hard to dismiss as at least a contributing factor. Particularly as this is not a U.S. phenomenon alone. A prior study in the British Medical Journal, likewise an authoritative publication, demonstrated a similar rise in self-harm in Great Britain, particularly amongst young women.
It is almost counterintuitive that devices and a medium which promotes super connectivity amongst individuals can, at the same time, isolate them from more meaningful and fulfilling interactions with their fellow human beings. Real, as opposed to virtual, interactions provide a layer of intonation in speech, facial and gesture information – “body language” – and layers of emotion that simply do not exist even on email. Emojis aside, there is something to real human interactions that simply cannot be reproducible on line. Our neural network, mediated through brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) has evolved over eons to include subtle clues of face to face communication that is much more sophisticated than simpler digital inputs can provide.
Speaking of neurotransmitters, some studies have shown activation of pleasure centers similar to the ones operative in addiction, and gambling through cell phone and gaming interactions. Likewise, studies with screen emitting blue light have documented interactions with our internal circadian rhythms and intrinsic melatonin (a neurotransmitter) pathways. Mixing the neural circuitry and neurochemical soup with the behavioral disturbances of sleep deprivation, isolation, and lessened physical activity may well be the recipe for mental disorders and suicidality: The medium for our newest social disease.
Michael Brant-Zawadzki is senior physician executive, and endowed chair, Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute, Hoag Hospital, Newport Beach, CA.
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