Finding useful information and nurturing connections with friends, family, and people with common interests are good things. Depression, demoralization, and isolation aren’t.
Today we communicate and interact in a manner unprecedented in human history. Social media—such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.—are mainstream technologies that allow us to communicate and connect with each other online. What’s different from “the way we were” is accessibility: we have greater access to the information and resources of the world, and the world has greater access to us. This is good … mostly.
Information empowers, and a reliable media source is important when gathering information on health and health care. How to find trusted and reliable sites? Ask your health-care provider, school representative, a family member, or a friend. Informational sites provided by academic centers and nonprofit organizations dedicated to health and wellness are great places to start.
Personal and social support: a sense of connectedness to those close to us is a major benefit of social media. As the circle of connectivity widens, groups with common interests around specific themes emerge and share strategies for a wide range of issues. (For example, bp Magazine has a Facebook page that is moderated and very supportive, with zero tolerance for negativity, bullying, shaming, etc., and a focus on the positive.) That’s a very good thing.
Social media is complex and is not created equally. While it enhances the connectedness at the individual level, we gather needed information and connect—but this may not always translate into enhanced quality of life. A recent study conducted by social scientists at the University of Michigan on the perception of available support on Facebook found that the perceived support was less than what was stated on the media. In other words, the message of support did not always register with the person in need. Furthermore, it was found that regular use of Facebook was associated with depression and demoralization. The irony of social media is that there are undercurrents that can make the individual feel more—not less—isolated. Individuals with mood disorders are especially susceptible, as self-attitude is frequently compromised in illness states. One can get caught up in the moment and lose sight of a rational perspective.
There is a perception of anonymity while online that has empowered some individuals to explore their darker side. Many of my patients tell me that the first signals of mania they notice are an irresistible draw to sites that lead to impulsive behaviors, such as gambling or personal interactions with strangers seeking sex. Not a good thing.
There are individual and societal examples of highly unethical uses of social media that cross the threshold into the downright ugly. Bullying has occurred over the ages in the schoolyard, family, workplace, and pretty much most environments where humans interact, but in these settings the effects are mitigated by watchful and responsible adults. It is nearly impossible to monitor toxic chatter on social media. Mood disorders, depression, and bipolar may increase one’s vulnerability.
Addictive behavior: Does “screen or social media addiction” exist? One can be guided by the tenets of the DSM 5 wherein pathological states are typically associated with impairing effects at the personal level. Does social media intrude / interfere with your life? Or is it an instrument that enables gathering of important information relevant to you and your family, keeping you connected through thick and thin?
In managing episodes of bipolar disorder, I often recommend taking a break from social media (apart from check-ins with loved ones). Watch re-runs of cartoons or favorite movies instead. Stay away from the news.
The best way to protect ourselves from the ugly and darker side of social media is through human interaction: talk with family, friends, and health-care providers. Social media can be great (and it’s here to stay), but it is a poor and unhealthy substitute for the in-person elements of humanity.
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