Is Facebook a Total Bummer?

Add a new syndrome to the list of adolescent angst: “Facebook depression.” That’s what can happen when tweens or teens measure themselves against their Facebook friends and comes up short. Gee, everybody has so many more friends than me. And they are getting so many more comments than me. And their status updates are cooler than mine. And their pictures look like they are having more fun than me.

For a kid who already feels isolated or depressed, Facebook can be the opposite of what it is intended to be. Instead of bringing people into a sense of community, it can create a feeling of inferiority. Some experts believe it can even trigger those feelings in kids who are otherwise well adapted.

Facebook depression is just one of the many issues addressed in a new clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) that appears in the April issue of Pediatrics. The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents and Families” looks in depth at the latest research on the effects that social media is having on kids and offers guidelines for pediatricians, parents and youth.

It suggests, for example, that pediatricians:

  • Advise parents to talk to children and adolescents about their online use and the specific issues that today’s online kids face, such as cyberbullying, sexting and difficulty managing their time.
  • Advise parents to work on their own “participation gap” in their homes by becoming better educated about the many technologies their children are using.
  • Discuss with families the need for a family online-use plan, with an emphasis on citizenship and healthy behavior.
  • Discuss with parents the importance of supervising online activities via active participation and communication, not just via monitoring software.
  • The report investigates both the positive and negative aspects of social media. It concludes that social media can enhance communication, facilitate social interaction, help develop technical skills, engender community participation and help kids develop a sense of identity. But at the same time, social media can intensify peer pressure, expose kids to hidden risks and encourage dangerous or inappropriate online behaviors.

    “For some teens and tweens, social media is the primary way they interact socially, rather than at the mall or a friend’s house,” said Gwenn O’Keeffe, MD, FAAP, co-author of the clinical report. “A large part of this generation’s social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones. Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children’s online world – and comfortably parent in that world.”

    Ed. Note: Media can be so cruel sometimes.

    Social media have the same ability to skew our view of the world as mass media have done for decades. They can make us come to think that people are richer, smarter, happier, healthier or more popular than we are. They can portray idealized and constructed realities the way television, movies and advertisements make it seem that thin is in, or smoking is glamorous, or the right car will make you a chick magnet, or the right breast size will win you slobbering adoration.

    Social media may be even more insidious because they seem to depict the real world rather than one that is glamorized for purposes of entertainment and persuasion. The fact is, Facebook is full of real people who are often putting their best face forward and posting their sunny side up.

    What is the antidote? How can kids who participate in social media inoculate themselves against the childhood maladies of insecurity and envy?

    Of course the best defense is a strong sense of self confidence and self esteem. But even those kids need more. They need new literacies. In this case, they need the ability to discern pretense from sincerity as well as meaningful values from shallow ones. They need to understand how social media portray reality.

    Not only are critical thinking skills the best way to defend against Facebook depression, they are the only way. In the same way kids (and adults) need to learn about how advertising plays on their psychology, they need the ability to see the missing photos in the photo albums and to read between the status lines.

    That’s a tall order for kids who have limited life experience, who still see the world from the limited context of their family and specific social group, but educators, parents and physicians can do a lot to help tweens and teens develop the social media literacies they need to be safe and feel secure.

    Helping them, for example, to understand the difference between having a huge friend list and having true friends can go a long way toward easing the common anxiety that others have it and they don’t.


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