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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

Facebook Depression a Growing Problem for Students

There is a dark side to social media within which students are spending more and more time resulting in what is being called Facebook depression.

According to a clinical study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) in April, teens who participate in social media and networking for prolonged periods of time are more likely to experience depression and anxiety.

“Many online risks are an extension of the child's real-world interactions,” said Dr. Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, lead researcher, “Parents and pediatricians have begun to report "Facebook depression," in which a teen becomes anxious and moody after spending a lot of time on the popular social networking site. These kids are usually those who have trouble with social interactions in general.

As adults on Facebook, we know what it is like to be “friended” and “unfriended” or to not have anyone to respond to a post on your wall. The silence is maddening but, to a teen, the silence propels them into Facebook Purgatory, a realm of cyber space where all silence is interpreted as “no one cares, no one likes me, no one knows I exist,” a repetitive mantra leading to obsessive compulsive logins subsiding only with a healthy dose of wall posts and at least five new friend requests.

Adolescence makes teens vulnerable to any number of emotional responses — and, in some cases even psychological or physical responses. This past January, Kameron Jacobsen, a 14-year-old from Orange County, New York, took his own life because of Facebook taunts about his perceived sexual orientation, according to sources.

While it would be difficult to say that Facebook could have prevented the suicide in any way, Facebook itself gives teens a platform upon which to speak, even if that privilege is abused by bullying, sexting, harassment or exposure to inappropriate content.

The responsibility should rest upon the parents who allow teens prolonged usage of mobile phones, iPads, blackberries and computers without providing supervised access at a time in adolescence when teens have not yet fully developed the skills of discipline, self-regulation or boundaries. Sure, parents want to provide certain freedoms so that teens can develop a sense of autonomy but, this virtue should never be developed through passive neglect. Technology needs to be monitored as the dark side of social media provides a gaping entrance for vulnerable teens.

The AAP suggests that parents should start becoming more tech savvy and become involved in their adolescent’s usage by discussing online topics as well as periodically checking privacy settings, profiles and posts. These suggestions are not meant to violate privacy but to promote responsibility. If a teen doesn’t want their parents to see their posts, then they aren’t ready to share that comment in the world of Facebook.

There are many complications with communicating over the internet. Aside from the inability to accurately judge the tone, intention or meaning of another person’s post, there is a certain degree of responsibility that is negated in posting a message via the internet as opposed to reality. The medium lends itself to making rash, spontaneous or impulsive comments. Also, the immediate response of peers isn’t always available and so the cues to correct unaccepted social behaviors aren’t performing their normal duties of enforcing accountability.

According to research published in the February issue of the Journal of Adolescence, co-authors Lisa R. Starr, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and Dr. Joanne Davila, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stony Brook University are confident that their findings suggest a that the features of social media directly contribute to depression.

“The abundance of communication technology available to teens today creates an enabling environment for co-rumination,” said Starr. “Texting, instant messaging, and social networking make it very easy for adolescents to become even more anxious which can lead to depression.”

While Facebook and other forms of social media provide outlets, they do not always guarantee validation or even problem solving venues. The result is co-rumination among peers, an obsessive tendency to over-examine the negative, which could lead to depression.

Adolescent girls are especially at risk because they are more likely to discuss problems – problems with boys, problems with friendships, problems with body image and problems with emotions in general.

On March 31, a 16-year-old Scranton girl posted a good-bye message on her Facebook page before jumping off of a bridge. The precipitating event was a previous post of potentially embarrassing pictures on Facebook. Her friends were shocked by the attempted suicide.

When a message is posted on Facebook it become “Facebook Official” so, even if it is not true, the fact that it is posted gives it credibility. When something that is “Facebook Official” goes viral, even if it is true, the potential for humiliation is devastating for a teen. It is not the same kind of humiliation that parents experienced in their own adolescent because the reminder of it is permanently embedded in either text or photos on the internet for anyone to see – potential colleges, employers, friends, relatives boyfriends.

For these reasons, the AAP is recommending that pediatricians educate adolescents and youth about the risks and complications of social networking. At the same time, the academy is not telling teens not to use social media at all. There are many benefits, the foremost being the sharing of knowledge and possibility of collaborative problem solving. Unfortunately, not all teens are using the social media for the intellectual benefits and, although they might know how to utilize technology better than their parents, they still need the guidance of parental supervision to navigate the risks of social media.

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