There’s been a lot written about risks for kids and teens online – it’s certainly on the minds of many parents we speak to, and one of the most researched topics in our online member help center. The threats sound ominous — cyberbullying, sexting, texting, and id theft … but have you heard the one about Facebook depression? It’s been the news du jour, lately.
Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a terrific report entitled The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families (PDF) – there’s a lot of good information about online risk to kids, and most of it makes good sense. The authors enumerate the benefits of social media – a refreshing point of view since so many stories of teens and social media emphasize the negatives. The report is balanced and also discusses some of the common risks:

“Recent research indicates that there are frequent online expressions of offline behaviors, such as bullying, clique-forming, and sexual experimentation, that have introduced problems such as cyberbullying, privacy issues, and “sexting.” Other problems that merit awareness include Internet addiction and concurrent sleep deprivation.”

If you’re a parent (or an aunt or uncle, or a friend of a parent, etc.), we recommend giving it a read. Overall, it’s a good report with a lot of information that should be helpful to parents, along with solid advice from study authors about the role pediatricians should play in supporting children, adolescents, and parents in coping with today’s online challenges.
But in the seven page report, there is one paragraph that has been making news … an item about a curious phenomenon called “Facebook Depression.” Here’s what the authors have to say:

“Researchers have proposed a new phenomenon called “Facebook depression,” defined as depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression. Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents. As with offline depression, preadolescents and adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression are at risk for social isolation and sometimes turn to risky Internet sites and blogs for “help” that may promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or selfdestructive behaviors.”

If you Google “Facebook depression,” there are more than 400,000 results. In the relatively short time since the AAP report was issued, the media, which has never been able to resist a melodramatic sound bite, has had a field day with this. We think that is too bad. Not because there aren’t risks on the web that parents have to deal with, but because this rather imprecise syndrome is sucking all the oxygen out of the air. It trivializes depression. It raises a monster where there likely is none, and it shifts the discussion from the real issues of online teen behaviors, parental guidance, and real clinical teen depression to this sort of squishy pop culture syndrome with a catchy name. Seeing the spate of ominous headlines warning parents about monitoring their kids for Facebook depression, one can’t help but think the study authors might wish for a do-over.
Weighing in on the matter of “Facebook Depression” are Eugene Beresin MD, Director of the Center for Mental Health and Media at the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Psychiatry and Associate Director Tristan Gorrindo MD. They are skeptics:

“… the term “Facebook Depression,” confuses the real meaning of the term depression. A diagnosis of “depression” should not be based on the amount of time one spends with a particular media. Certainly, a student who practices piano five hours a day and then develops symptoms of depression, does not have “piano depression.” While it may be true that the excessive use of social media may be a form of an “addiction” or other “disorder” provided that it is dysfunctional and disrupts social, academic, or recreational functioning, these behaviors have not yet been formally labeled as disorders because careful research and clarification of these behaviors has not yet been completed – a similar process is needed before “Facebook Depression” can be deemed a valid disorder.”

Later, they note:

“In our work with depressed teens and teens with problematic internet behaviors, we see a broad number of things that could be contributing to why a child is spending a lot of time online: social anxiety or social awkwardness, feeling unsafe at school, and depression, just to name a few. In fact, one could argue from the opposite angle that a teenager with severe social anxiety might attempt to combat the fear of interacting face to face with others using Facebook as a means of “opening a door” that is too hard to do in real time.”

They go on to offer practical advice to both pediatricians and parents. Please do check it out, and don’t miss the very good links they offer to sites that offer social media guidance for parents. We encourage parents to heed the common sense recommendations in this article, and much of what is contained in the AAP report. A Kaiser Family Foundation report says that children between the ages of 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours of electronic activity daily (this includes TV).
Now that’s depressing.


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