Facebook's Mental Health Issue
Facebook's Mental Health Issue: What was the most important thing I discovered in 2021? Depression and social media do not get along.
For the first time in October 2021, I erased the Facebook app from my phone.
It was not a deliberate decision.
Instead, it was like tossing away a half-eaten tub of ice cream before I got sick or deleting the number of a man who didn't have my best interests at heart: a terrifying intervention of reason to keep my out-of-control animal instincts from causing me more pain.
That October, I experienced my first bout of depression in over a decade.
I swiftly withdrew from all job endeavours and retired to the care of very close friends and the calm protection of my house once I realised what was going on (it took a while).
I attempted to read books but failed; I attempted to watch movies but couldn't hone in on something for longer than a few minutes.
My attention span, which had never been strong, had shortened. So I'd sit there for hours, thumbing between Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook on my phone.
Nothing occurred to mind to post, so I just consumed it. But it worsened with each double-click of the home button and each refresh motion.
Each receding wave left me in even more misery than the previous one, yet each time I yearned for nothing more than the soothing water to return.
To refresh, draw.
It was like consuming a particularly awful drug: a speeding of the heartbeat, a burst of warmth and comfort, then a dreary, sickening, stretched emptiness, like the tide receding from the shore, leaving nothing but loneliness in its wet wake.
The water slipped through my fingers no matter how desperately I gripped it, and each receding wave left a more profound despair than the last – and yet each time, I yearned for nothing more than the comforting water to return.
Drawing helps me to relax.
It was a sickening vicious loop that I had to break free from. Nobody could have helped me since I wouldn't have known how to convey it.
All I had were brief moments when the fog lifted, and I could sense something horrible was happening.
I waited for one of those moments, then summoned all of my energy and made what appeared to me at the time to be deleting the Facebook app was one of the most life-altering choices I've ever made.
Then there's Instagram.
Then there's Twitter.
I disabled all numerous notifications. My phone was now silent, except for texts and calls from close friends and family.
The world seemed to shrink, become more controllable, and more intimate. It enabled me to improve. And, without thinking about it, I was back on social media a few weeks later.
The narrative might have ended here if my depression hadn't come back with force in the spring, putting me back into that horrible, horrific cycle.
Social apps have vanished. But this time, possibly because I wanted anything to hang onto and pseudoscientific research looked like a good enough straw, I set out to figure out what was going on.
It soon became apparent that it wasn't just me.
Friends and acquaintances who had suffered from depression that I spoke with all told me similar stories: Social media was prohibited during the depression.
Some people had taken breaks.
Others had gotten rid of their accounts.
His therapist had told him to stop using Facebook. Nobody had given it much thought.
Most assumed it was one of the many mysteries surrounding depression, that odd disease about which little is known aside from common symptoms and broad statistics.
Typical symptoms include:
One has very little energy. One is unable to concentrate. You are incapable of dealing with people. You are incapable of handling stress.
You may experience headaches, back pain, sleeplessness, and erratic appetite. Most of the time, you are catatonic rather than depressed.
You do not feel anything except in a loser's way. You can't get away from it.
Statistics in general:
According to the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, the chance of suffering severe depression once in a lifetime is between 16 and 20% in Germany, where I live.
To quote the National Institute of Mental Health: an estimated 16 million adults in the United States, or 6.9% of the adult population, experienced at least one severe depressive episode in the previous year in 2012.
According to the World Health Organization, depression affects 350 million people globally and will be the second most frequent disease by 2020.
That's an alarming statistic, but 350 million people account for one-quarter of Facebook's total user base.
I couldn't discover any scientific studies to back up my assertion or explain the link between depression and social media use.
There have been numerous studies on how social media can lead to depression, although the data is shaky:
One study indicates that social media is damaging, and another proves the contrary. (A February 2015 University of Missouri study attempts to stop the controversy by stating that it is all about how you use it.)
When you stalk acquaintances and compare your life to theirs, sadness sets in. You will be happy if you care for your friends and family. This raises the question, did the researchers ever use Facebook?)
When I questioned if her other depressed patients were also unable to use social media, my psychiatrist replied matter-of-factly, “Oh yeah, I see it a lot.” “One even recently discarded her cell phone.”
Even though no research has been conducted on the impact of social media on pre-existing depression, professionals believe that this effect is so clear that it is hardly remarkable.
“Oh absolutely, I see that a lot,” my psychiatrist at Berlin's Charité University Psychiatric Clinic remarked matter-of-factly when I questioned if her other sad patients couldn't use social media as well. “One even recently gave away her cell phone.”
She added that this is due to the stress caused by social media and frequent accessibility. “Plus, when you're depressed, you don't want to see how wonderful other people's lives are.”
In search of clarification, I turned to Professor Isabella Heuser, director of the Charité Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, who swiftly corroborated my psychiatrist's assessment of depression's incompatibility with social media.
She recognised that some patients use Facebook when they can't sleep at night, but they often don't or can't communicate about their depression on the platform and can't draw any positive conclusions from experience.
I told her what I had discovered via introspection.
Because I could no longer perform on social media, I mentally prepared tweets and planned Instagram photo opportunities.
That seemed unimaginable at the time. Just thinking about it made me so nervous that I couldn't keep my jaw closed.
It was also new to me that I was now knowingly suffering from comparing my life to others.
If I felt a strong desire for rapid pleasure, which felt harmful – think receding water – that harmed my already wounded attention span even more.
When Professor Heuser heard the last statement, she responded, “Well, that's easy to explain physically.” “Through everyday involvement with social media, your brain has learned that logging on in the morning results in a nice experience.”
Positive thinking, escapism
That is dopamine, anticipation, and you can still have it. However, your organism can no longer produce the good emotion that generally follows.
That is a classic sign of despair.
You can't sense joy or connection with others.” And, she explains, because my brain remembers how joy used to feel, its absence and emptiness are subconsciously felt as painful.
“Will has to do with energy,” she explained why I found it so difficult to resist the pull of dopamine release.
And depression is precisely defined by a lack of vitality.” And, while my attention span had always been limited, perhaps the depression had lowered it below a tolerable level.
I looked through my Facebook feed looking for content, and the further back I went, the more envious I grew of my own life as I had portrayed it.
So far, so good from a medical standpoint. But what about the sharp sense of inadequacy? I mentioned a particularly egregious case to Professor Heuser:
Shortly before my second breakdown, an artist friend asked me to participate in a video about how we portray ourselves and our accomplishments online and offline.
I was asked to read a few of my own social media posts. I looked through my Facebook feed looking for content, and the further back I went, the more envious I grew of my own life as I had portrayed it.
My glowing posts from Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York City, my stories of adventures in the West Bank and the Baltic Sea, the stories I'd written and magazines I'd edited, and my astute commentary on current events, all topped off with likes and comments from people I'd met (or not met) at some point in my life – irrevocable proof that I'd once been prosperous, famous, cheerful, and even happy.
After approximately a year, I was struck with so much self-pity that I had to cancel the whole thing.
Professor Heuser paused for a moment to reflect. “It's only tangentially tied to social media,” she said. “Depressed people are extremely creative in convincing themselves that they are losers.”
But we live in a hyper-communicative world – not truly communicative, but egotistical.
Everyone is continually “sharing” things, but it's published on a wall hoping that as many people as possible will come by and “like” them.
The goal is to satisfy our narcissism. It's a cacophony of voices, a multi-voiced discourse. Everyone posts something, but no one talks to anybody else.
This is hardly a new critique of social media or current society, and I would have dismissed it as Luddite in other circumstances.
But suddenly, for the first time in the more than ten years I've been using social media, I truly comprehended it, felt the truth in my gut – and realised how much I'd been enjoying playing along.
“Loneliness does not originate from not having people around, but from not being able to communicate the things that seem significant to yourself,” Carl Gustav Jung, the creator of analytical psychology, famously said.
A healthy individual might find a pretend dialogue tedious at best.
The superficiality of social media, on the other hand, can be highly damaging to someone suffering from depression.
Deanna Zandt, a media technologist and author, spoke on this in June 2015 at the Personal Democracy Forum.
Zandt showed the crowd a slideshow of photographs from her social media feeds. She was smiling in all of them, but she also stated that she was going through her worst depressed episode.
She claimed that her mental health had worsened because of “the mismatch between what was going on in my life and what I felt I needed to communicate publicly with my community.”
“All of this points us down a perilous path of separation.”Both from each other and from within ourselves. We are on a technical road that will lead to communal depressed dissonance.”
Zandt attributes the concentration on purity in digital culture to inflating the extent to which we display ourselves in public, diverting from our feelings. “It's all driving us down a perilous path of estrangement.”
We are on a technical road that will lead to communal depressive dissonance.
” Instead of creating tools for “stupid human mammals” that can be “easily trained by positive reinforcement,” she believes that technologists should embrace the complexity of human life and incorporate it into the core of the products they create.
She doesn't profess to know what that might look like. Still, her message is clear: Digital culture should allow for the gap between authenticity, connection, and vulnerability – in other words, intimacy.
Zandt, Deanna, I understand. But I'm not a media expert.
My approach to the problem of sadness and social media incompatibility was directed solely at changing my life.
But perhaps it was no less radical: mercilessly eliminate all phoney intimacy and external contacts and devote my limited attention to genuine relationships.
I am putting my short attention span similarly to an incubator.
Even without the positive reinforcement of Twitter favourites, I'm learning to perceive myself as worthy.
Which reminds me: do they still refer to them as favourites?
I've been largely absent from social media for the past seven months. I've also removed all non-social apps that cause dopamine release and provide escapism, such as shopping apps and games.
When I need to unwind, I read a novel, and when I can't focus, I go for a walk. I frequently leave the house without taking my phone.
I've sworn off multitasking to the extent that I stopped listening to music while working. And I'm feeling a lot better now.
I wish I dared to deactivate my Facebook account, which I now regard as the most harmful social network.
As it stands, I'll keep my URL blocker enabled, limit my daily methadone use to 10 minutes, and be thankful for a specialised Messenger app.
I also believe we should be more upfront about depression; anything else seems absurd to me right now.
Ultimately, I will have to learn to cope with social media in the same way that I learned to deal with the accessible availability of sweet foods: via awareness and self-control.
I don't anticipate Twitter or Facebook to assist me any more than Kraft Foods will. But I do want to be aware of risk factors, whether they are related to diabetes or depression.