You’ve probably seen headlines linking social media to depression, loneliness, and other emotional problems. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report urging pediatricians to counsel families about something they called “Facebook depression.”
Despite the headlines, much of the early research about how social media impacts mental health was contradictory. One study from the University of Michigan found that “life satisfaction” was lower among students who used Facebook more. Another study at the University of Wisconsin found exactly the opposite.
More recent research indicates that what really matters is how people use social media. This makes sense. In general, people are happiest when they feel they can exert some control over what happens to them. Even very young children appreciate choices — the blue shirt or the red shirt, carrot sticks or apple slices.
The same rule seems to apply to social media. People who stay focused on what they are able to do seem to fare better than those who become preoccupied with what others are doing. Understanding this principle can help parents make social media a more positive experience for everyone in the family, including the grown-ups. Here are some guidelines to consider:
Lurk less. Studies have concluded that people who simply scroll through information provided by others are more vulnerable to negative feelings, including envy and loneliness.
“Envy can proliferate on social networks,” notes Hanna Krasnova, author of a study done at the Humboldt University in Germany, “and [it] becomes even more intense in the case of passive users.” Catching up with friends may generate positive feelings, but avoid lingering too long over other people’s photos and status updates.
Make posts matter — to you. Instead of using posts to provoke a response from others (something that is out of your hands), shift the emphasis and use social media to chronicle experiences and ideas that you want to remember. When an update captures something that matters to you, the number of “likes” becomes less important.
Research also indicates that posts about problems tend to get less feedback from other users. Perhaps that would be different if there were a “Poor baby” button on social media sites. As it is, “liking” a bad day post often feels weird — unless you’ve figured out some way to transform a problem into a message that’s funny or even uplifting.
Don’t believe everything you read. Social media amplifies the very common adolescent anxiety that everyone else is having more fun. One study from Stanford found that most test subjects vastly overestimated how happy other people were, in part because they accepted social media at face value. Of course, by now, everyone has gotten the same message: what you post online never really goes away. Because most people want to be remembered for the good things that happened in their lives, and that’s what goes on display. Remind yourself — and your kids — that, behind the cheery façade, other people are also having feelings of unhappiness, loneliness, jealousy, and insecurity.
Become a force for good. Once family members understand the “envy spiral” that can be created by social media, you and your kids can actively look for opportunities to play a positive role in the lives of other people. Be generous with your own “Likes.” Write comments that are affirmative, upbeat, or encouraging. Use what you learn online to deepen offline relationships.
Appreciate the limits of social media. Everyone needs a safe place where they can share the parts of life that are difficult, complicated, and messy. Some young people find emotional support through social media, but many benefit when adults point them toward time-tested methods of self-discovery. Keeping a private journal (not a public blog) allows young people to sort out thoughts and feelings that aren’t fully formed. Confiding in a trusted friend, a wise mentor, or even a counselor is also a way to come to terms with painful or confusing emotions. Classic novels and films can also help young people realize that they are not alone in wrestling with meaning-of-life questions that don’t necessarily show up in social media.
Find compelling interests. For some teenagers, social media intensifies a fear of missing out. Of course, adults know that everyone is “missing out” all the time, because no one can do everything. Researchers who study happiness believe that the best antidote to such feelings is mindfulness. When a person is deeply engaged in what he is doing here and now, there’s less preoccupation with what others are doing. Help your children cultivate this awareness by exposing them to experiences so engrossing that they lose track of time.
Experts who study social media often face a chicken-or-egg problem: does using social media in certain ways cause negative feelings? Or do people who are already sad use social media in those ways? The answer to that question still isn’t clear. What is clear is that children who know how to find and focus their energies on what’s within their control are more likely to be happy both online and off.
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. She has been writing Growing Up Online for 10 years and is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. Visit www.growing-up-online.com to read other columns.
Copyright, 2013, Carolyn Jabs. All rights reserved.