Depression is one of the most common illnesses in young people, with Adolescent Depression Awareness Program figures showing that as many as five per cent of teenagers suffer from the condition. Online phenomena such as bullying and privacy issues have seen social media use linked to teen depression. However, the causes of mental illness can be complex, and sites like Facebook may have a beneficial effect on the condition in some circumstances.
Clinical depression is distinct from simply being in a bad mood, and has largely the same effect on teens as it does on adults. It is a recognized medical condition which affects the way a person feels about themselves, others, and the world around them. Symptoms can include a constant feeling of sadness, a lack of interest in recreational activities and loss of appetite. In addition, depression can have physical effects, including weight loss or gain, difficulty sleeping and a persistent feeling of untreatable pain.
A 2011 study from the American Academy of Pediatrics identifies some depression risk factors for teens using social media. These include cyberbullying – the use of social networks to communicate malicious information about others – which was found to be the most common online risk for teens and a major cause of psychological issues. Overwhelming levels of online communication, the persistent advertising seen on many networks, and mixed messages from parents and lawmakers were also cited as potential problems.
Social media gives teenagers a range of opportunities for online socializing, allowing them to chat to and interact with peers around the world. Maintaining successful social relationships is a major factor in depression prevention, and some long-distance relationships would be difficult or impossible without the use of social media. Social media also allows teens to get information on conditions they may find embarrassing – such as depression itself – in confidence via the pages of medical and support groups.
The risk of social media use causing teenage depression can be minimised by following a few best practices. Internet safety expert Katie LeClerc Greer recommends keeping computers and other Internet-connected devices located in a central area of the house to allow parents to oversee teenage Internet use more easily. The use of monitoring software and restricted social media time for teens can also help to limit the chances of a depression-causing issue arising.
Ultimately, social media use is akin to most other online activities: moderate participation is unlikely to cause any harm but excessive use could lead to obsessive or compulsive behaviour. By limiting usage to a couple of hours a day at most and taking sensible online security precautions, parents can ensure that their teens have a healthy relationship with social media.