There’s no question that social media have transformed the way people communicate. I remember a time, back in the day, when I watched the cartoon The Jetsons and admired the computer screen that popped out of this space-age family’s living room wall, allowing them to talk with family members in a neighboring galaxy. In the 1970s, that image was a dream; in the year 2013, electronic communication is the norm. Whether via FaceTime, Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, or any number of other portals, we are instantaneously transported to lightning-fast communication with friends, family, and colleagues.
As a therapist, I feel conflicted about social media and the use of electronic communications to improve mental health. On the bright side, computers have allowed people to connect with therapists from afar. In addition, support groups/forums are available online, some involving webcams, to help link people who need treatment in a group format, with geography being the primary obstacle. I personally provide telephone sessions to people who live too far away or who, for health-related reasons, cannot travel to my office. The use of “telemedicine” in psychotherapy can be a convenient, beneficial mode of providing mental health support when in-person therapy is not possible.
Furthermore, many people find information on the web to be helpful in understanding their particular circumstances; for example, a person with fertility challenges may find a holistic website to be informative regarding specific lifestyle changes which can enhance fertility. Psycho-education certainly has merit; I often refer perinatal clients to specific websites which support new motherhood/parenthood, provide online support forums, and offer evidence-based information in healing depression or anxiety during the perinatal period. And new moms who are not able to travel long distances to in-person support groups can now connect with qualified, skilled therapists and other new moms in online groups.
My concern with electronic communication lies mainly with how social media impact mental well-being. Often, individuals will present for therapy and mention feeling upset about how one of their friends or family members insulted them on Facebook. People sometimes feel inadequate if they compare themselves to friends’ or neighbors’ posts boasting their latest acquisition or vacation. Others are saddened if they aren’t included in an exclusive gathering with friends, as they gawk at photos of what they missed. Teenagers reinforce cliques and brag about who made the basketball team by posting the roster on Instagram. Whatever their age, people are good at “marketing” themselves to present a facade to the world of their ideal image of themselves.
I recommend a “social media diet” when I hear these stories. What was designed to connect people seems to create or increase competition, depression, feelings of low self-worth, and narcissism. Recent studies show a direct correlation between time spent on Facebook and feelings of depression and inadequacy (University of Michigan, Kross, 2013).
Even more concerning are recent, high-profile cyber-bullying cases which have resulted in teen suicides. So-called “sexting” and sending provocative photos between students has become a major source of contention. Parents need to observe, supervise, and limit the amount of time their teens are on social media and be prepared to scan their child’s electronic media. Limits on what is shared and boundaries about acceptable posts, texts, and photos are essential. We must teach our children Internet safety.
Although social media can help people connect with friends and family they wouldn’t normally see regularly due to geography, they can have a negative impact on people who are working hard to move through depression or anxiety. I encourage people to be selective as to what information they expose themselves to online during their vulnerable period of recovery. Often, that also means taking a break from news, television, or movies which may trigger anxiety or feelings of loss. Online support forums facilitated by skilled, trained therapists can be the exception. Specific empowering, informational websites can also assist in healing during a psychological crisis. The web can be a powerful, healing tool if we are selective about what we choose to expose ourselves to and what we allow our children to have access to.
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