Social Media: Friend or Foe?

Aspects Volume 38 No. 1

Social Media

While medications can help heal, too much can cause harm and lead to a path of destruction. The same applies to social network site users: too much with the wrong motivations for use can also have damaging results. But some SIU School of Medicine psychologists and counselors feel that social network sites (SNS), when used with the right motivation, could also provide benefits to a subset of patients with mental issues.

"The studies regarding the benefits and disadvantages of social media are conflicting because there are so many variables," says Dana Ingram, LCSW, psychotherapist at SIU. She says that in the past, she didn’t often consider social media’s influence on her client’s issues. But, with more than 73 percent of adults using SNS, "it’s always in the back of my mind now." Estimates show that by 2016 the world will have nearly 2.13 billion social network users, and providers are becoming more mindful of the impact.

"We need to be aware that social media use can be influential on the quality of life and mood of our patients, positively and negatively," Ingram says. "We need to be more aware and ask the questions: how much are you using, what’s your motivation and how is it influencing you? People don’t always talk about what’s going on with their social media usage, not because they’re ashamed of it, but because they don’t see it as affecting them."


"Facebook helps me remember that I’m not alone in motherhood."

emotican "The power of the ‘Like’ button is amazing," says Ingram. "Positive feedback on any type of social network site (SNS) can really help increase self-esteem and confidence." Many with social or general anxiety issues use SNS to build a sense of social capital and self-esteem. "It’s a safe, self-protective way to practice social skills and get feedback. By watching others and their interactions and responses, they can learn how to phrase things to sound supportive with little risk of embarrassment, giving them a little boost of self-confidence."

Patricia Fank, PsyD, assistant professor of psychiatry, says that online social networks can help connect people who are going through a similar life experience, whether it’s dealing with anxiety or finding support and information regarding a newly diagnosed disease. "These social sites can help people find others who truly understand and help them to not feel as alone or apprehensive," Dr. Fank explains.

For first-time mom *Cameron Belle, the changes in her world have been overwhelming. Diagnosed with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), SNS have allowed her to connect and feel a sense of belonging with others who share similar interests. As she neared her due date, she was told a C-section was a possibility. Not sure of what to expect, she turned to her Facebook "friends" for advice and encouragement. "Facebook helped ease a lot of my pregnancy fears and helps me remember that I’m not alone in motherhood," Belle explains. "It’s nice just to be able to ask other women their opinions." With that support network, Belle’s anxiety turned to the joy of impending motherhood.

Social media has helped Belle maintain family relationships when busy family life and distance don’t allow her to see them face-to-face. More than 90 percent of SNS users say that maintaining contact with family and friends is their major motivation for use, and half give the reason of connecting with old friends. The power of technology and SNS allows these former classmates, family and childhood friends to have conversations and view images and video when proximity and time impede these connections.

Connection can be especially important for those who are dealing with a newly diagnosed disease or the effects of the disease and treatment. Dr. Fank, who specializes in behavioral and psychosocial oncology, works with many of these patients. "Online social networks can help people who are looking for a way to keep friends and family apprised of their journey with an illness without having to tell the story numerous times," she says.

Dr. Fank also recommends social gaming for patients, especially for those who are recovering from illness, surgery or undergoing medical treatments such as chemotherapy. "They may not have the strength to get out of the house and be physically active, but gaming can help distract them from their struggles and provide some entertainment and connectivity."

*Diane, 66, was a stranger to SNS until two years ago when her son introduced her to Words With Friends®. Suffering from severe depression after the loss of her mother, gaming began as a diversion for her but eventually helped bring her out of her depression. After a number of back-and-forth chats with Words challenger, *Natalia, the two became a support system for one another. "We soon discovered that despite our 20-year age difference, we had a lot of things in common in life," Diane explains. "We play and chat every night." The two eventually met at a restaurant at a half-way point with their husbands. "It was so cool to be able to meet her – this person that I’d just been communicating with in writing for so long."

The many variables make it hard to pinpoint the exact reasons some people benefit from SNS. However, providers agree that those like Belle, Diane and Natalia who use these sites with the motivation to build positive relationships can decrease negative mental issues and increase self-esteem and confidence.


"I think I’m addicted."

Emoticon Sad While SNS can assuage anxiety and other mental health problems in some, for others, it can increase these issues. "'Logout' really might be the hardest button to click," Ingram says. One of Ingram’s patients dealt with anxiety, depression. "Conflicts on Facebook seemed to be causing a lot of her issues, so I encouraged her to stay off and make note of how she felt. But being off Facebook caused her such distress that she had to schedule an earlier appointment with me. She had increased anxiety, tearfulness, increased irritability and sleeplessness. Her words to me were, ‘I think I’m addicted.’" Ingram says in cases like this, weaning off time on SNS is best.

While no official diagnosis for internet or social media addiction exists, experts agree that many people are showing negative symptoms that could warrant assigning such a designation. "Addiction is about what happens when someone tries to stop and how that affects them," Ingram says.

Social media can cause anxiety, irritation and feelings of inadequacy for those who use it to catch a glimpse of the lives of those they know and even those they don’t. While sites like Pinterest and Tumblr can inspire creativity, they also can overwhelm, making users feel as if they are not meeting certain standards or that they are missing out. "When we compare events and photos to our everyday lives, we can feel like we’re not measuring up," Ingram says. "But what we need to remember is that what we see are the highlights of people’s lives."

Glimpsing these highlights and looking for inspiration can sometimes take precedence over the face-to-face connections. This may perpetuate a skewed view of others, poor communication, relationship conflicts and lack of conflict resolution. Ingram says that after exploring her patients’ stressors, the main culprits are relationship conflict and lack of resolution on social networks. Experts warn users not to value social networking over face-to-face relationships. "Communication is so much more than the written word; when we rely on Facebook and texts to communicate for us, we’re missing out on 70 percent of the conversation." Ingram says. "It will never be as effective as face-to-face, and this can put a lot of stress on people."

Bullying and feelings of isolation are additional side effects of social media overdose. "People who bully can do so effectively through social media and have seemingly few consequences," Ingram says. "They feel safe to jump on the bandwagon to bully someone because there is no face-to-face connection. They’re protected by a computer screen miles away." Ingram explains that this behavior engenders a lack of empathy and promotes more conflict.

For those already dealing with mental health issues, the difficulty of maintaining balance in the social network world and establishing positive relationships can increase anxiety and depression, according to Ingram and Fank. "If the motivation to use social media is based on positive interaction that decreases feelings of anxiety and inadequacy rather than provoking it, then you’ll have positive results," Dr. Fank says. "If the motivation is negative, the results will be as well."


*names have been changed
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