Social media & depression: Helpful or harmful?

Social media is a large part of just about everyone's lives, whether we like it or not.

NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- One picture, one thought at a time; the world particularly runs off social media, but for the medical community, this is unchartered territory. 

How does social media affect your mental health? Can social media fuel anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts? Can what you post online be used to help expose potential mental health issues?

Those are the questions scientists are all looking to answer. 

“This is very new. There are many studies happening now, looking at these things, but what the actual effect is, we do not know,” said Dr. Jason Parker, Senior Psychology Lecturer for Old Dominion University. 

Parker said that for some, social media can cause an addiction similar to one associated with alcohol and drugs. 

“The thing that makes it look like an addiction is that they get anxiety when they don’t have it,” Parker explained. 

This anxiety could lead to long-term damage to emotions, especially to those already prone to depression. 

"You look for stimulation that actually will make you sad, as in they are drawn to it," Parker explained. 

Think of it as a vicious cycle: the information you might be seeking out on Google will fuel your Facebook feed. From there, one like of a group, a meme, or any other post will bring up hundreds of others just like it. 

“So you are getting this whole bombardment of negative information to pull you down,” said Parker. 

Yet new research suggests that social media can also be used to expose mental health struggles, if you know what to look for. 

Chris Danforth, an associate professor of mathematics at University of Vermont, along with Harvard University graduate student Andrew Reece, recruited 166 people to share their Instagram accounts. 

Out of those, 71 had a clinical diagnosis of depression. 

“We compared pictures that they had taken and posted to Instagram with a population of individuals who are healthy, and looked at the differences between the pictures posted by the two groups,” Danforth explained. 

Danforth and Reece developed an algorithm that sorted through nearly 44,000 photos. The results showed that people who were depressed tended to post pictures that were darker, more blue and grayer and in color. The pictures also tended to show fewer faces. 

“There could be predictive information in things like the pictures we post to Instagram that can be leveraged by an algorithm to get you in front of a doctor sooner, so that’s one of the promising things about the study,” said Danforth. 

Danforth admits that the study is just a start and a lot more work has to be done. Danforth hopes his research will help develop technology that ultimately can help prevent suicide. 

Most doctors still agree that for those who don't have special training, it's not easy to recognize that their loved ones and friends are in emotional distress. 

“The biggest dangers in depression is that people hide it,” said Parker. 

If you are thinking about suicide, or are worried about a friend or loved one, the Lifeline network is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-8255.

© 2017 WVEC-TV


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