Last month researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia released a study linking Facebook use to increased envy and depression. The work was quickly picked up in the media as many echoed the familiar message of too much time online turning our young people into melancholy, anxiety-riddled, FOMO-plagued train wrecks. But despite our fondness for blaming the internet for everything bad that's happened after 1998, many in the mental health field feel that this correlation is overstated.
Bridianne O'Dea is a postdoctoral research fellow at Australia's Black Dog Institute. She notes that while many of us are sensitive to likes, retweets, and shares, we shouldn't underestimate human resilience. "Sure, receiving negative feedback on social media can affect your self-esteem," she says. "But remember, self-esteem is something that starts developing from when you're a child. It takes a long time to develop, and a long time to change."
Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide are at a ten-year high in Australia, and those rates have also been rising in America, so perhaps it's not surprising that social media has been blamed for people feeling meh. Who hasn't looked at someone else's Instagram and felt like a soggy box of four-day-old pizza? But while statistics may reflect an anecdotal correlation between our social media use and our mood, it's largely circumstantial.
In reality, your biological chemistry likely has far has more to do with your age than your Facebook usage. Almost 50 percent of social media users are between the age of 18 and 29, the same demographic that contains the highest rates of mental illness. O'Dea explains that the trends of mental illness spiking in adolescence and young adulthood were established decades ago, with 75 percent of mental illnesses emerging before the age of 25. Depression's tendency to manifest around the same time social media use spikes is largely coincidental.
The figures are also skewed by our increased ability to talk about mental health. "You're going to see rises in these rates, which doesn't necessarily mean the number of [mentally ill] people are changing," O'Dea says. "It's just the number of people reporting is changing."
Professor Nick Titov, project director at MindSpot Clinic, agrees with O'Dea. He says that concern over new technology has been around as long as technology itself, and it's dangerous to assume the medium is the problem. "I'm sure previous generations were concerned about our parents watching television," he says. "I don't think it's necessarily about the medium, it's about how people are communicating."
Health-care professionals have always been vocal about the internet and social media's role in allowing people to access more information to be positive. Surprisingly they also see our tendency to misrepresent ourselves online as less of an issue that you'd think, noting that for younger generations, the online world is increasingly similar to their IRL one.
Psychologists call our glossy online avatars our "hoped for possible selves," and have found the trend encourages personal aspiration. Our social media personas are us at our best, but they're still us. By curating this shiny world they suggest we're not fooling ourselves, but forming a picture of who we could be.
And although trolls and online bullying is obviously a very visual problem that undoubtedly needs continual attention, there are less obvious benefits social media use gives the mental-health community. It provides individuals with access to support and information, but it's also a tool for researchers. Discussions that evolve through social media are increasingly developing research questions, and anecdotal reports of Facebook trends help calculate and formulate future studies.
You might feel bad when you're using Facebook, but your mood is likely more dependent on hormones, circumstance, and other people's actions—not by Mark Zuckerberg. That means that unplugging probably won't make you feel better. But on the bright side, at least your awesome Instagram feed isn't adding to someone else's problems.
Follow Wendy on Twitter.