Speculation on Why Social Media is Associated with Depression

Published: 09/29/2019

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This post is a response to some meme in the zeitgeist I've observed that social media depresses people because it shows people other's best selves. You go on Facebook and see all your friends posting about their exciting, fun and perfect lives and start to feel worse about your own shitty life. And of course you're only seeing a curated portion of other's lives. There's two levels of positive selection going on. Your friends are only posting their highlights and only your friends with highlights are posting. My opinion is close to the opposite. Social media is partially depressing because it shows you your friends suffering. But mostly its depressing because staring at a screen is depressing. I'll defend this position poorly, with personal examples of what I see on Facebook and my subjective accounts of my reactions to good and bad news from friends. I'll also give a nefarious and paranoid explanation of the prevalence of the memey interpretation of social media's association to depression.

People's experience of social media is wildly divergent. In fact that's almost the point and one of the primary innovations over traditional media. One has the choice of many social media sites: Facebook, Instagram, Reddit and Twitter are the obvious behemoths. There are also many smaller sites which foster distinct personal cultures like Lesswrong and Hackernews (not to id my own tastes too obviously). Once one has chosen the sites they want to use they have many knobs to turn to get the experience they want. They can follow who they want to follow. They can join the groups they want to group. In a very real sense if people aren't having a good time when they're using social media it's their own fault. I say this as someone who has spent a substantial amount of time on various social media sites having a decidedly not good time. So when I talk about my experiences on social media I'm sure a lot of people won't really know what I'm talking about. I'm also sure a lot of people will. But I don't see people talking about how happy they are or the cool things they're up to. My general interpretation of people's mood from what they post is that they are miserable. It sort of seems the same way to me on Twitter and Reddit. It just doesn't seem to me that healthy, happy people would produce the kind of content I see on these sites.

My second gripe with this explanation of social media's harm is that its just philosophically implausible to me. When I see my friends happy, I am happier. When I see my friends sad I am sadder. I'm not saying sometimes when they're happiness comes from some material thing I don't have or haven't experienced there isn't some second order effect of jealousy. But I think its dominated by the first order effect of wanting my friends to be happy and successful. When I see vacation photos or baby pictures I don't feel dissatisfied in my own life. Perhaps this isn't the typical emotional response to this stimuli. But I sort of think it is. If instead of asking what in social media makes people sad, you ask what in life makes people happy, I think your list will probably include things like: spending time with friends, exercise, eating good food and doing creative things. Once you've made a list of things that make people happy, and observe that they all take up some time, I think the theory that social media makes people unhappy simply by taking up their time is very plausible.

My explanation for the traction this theory has in the public mind is insidious manipulation by traditional media. Social media has been extremely successful at doing what traditional media has always aimed to do: consume as much time as possible in its consumer's lives. Traditional sources of media want to steal that time back to their own controlled channels. And to do this they do what they do best: they construct a narrative which portrays their opponent as harmful. But social media and traditional media aren't that distinct. In particular I think the only reason social media is more psychologically harmful than traditional media is because it is more addictive and succeeds more totally in occupying its users' attentions. So to distinguish the two in a way that is plausibly true traditional media has promulgated this view that seeing your friends happy is what is harming users, not just the act of spending time on it itself. This also somewhat explains why the thesis "seeing your friends happy is bad" is spread. Instead of the ostensibly more intuitive "seeing your friends sad is bad". Because its already a popular culture meme that traditional media is extremely depressing because it shows you imagery of all kinds of negative news happening all over the world. Saying social media is bad because it shows you bad things in the world already isn't distinguishing it substantially from traditional media.

This whole post is obviously a slightly sketchy armchair argument. But I really do think there is something important here. At a later date I may try to firm it up with citations to literature about associations between Depression and Social Media Usage (In particular I'm not sure any studies actually successfully show a causal relationship in either direction, let alone prove a mechanism). I might also go hunting for some traditional media articles talking about the harmfulness of social media. In the mean time I'm going to try to create more and consume less. I encourage you to do the same (yes I'm aware of the contradiction here).