Facebook’s Mental Health Problem

The most important thing I learned in 2015? That depression and social media do not go well together at all.

The first time I deleted the Facebook app from my phone was in October 2014. It wasn’t a considered decision. Rather, it felt like dumping a half-eaten tub of ice cream before I could gobble down the whole thing and feel sick, or deleting the number of a man who clearly doesn’t have my best interests at heart: a panicked intervention by reason to prevent my out-of-control animal instinct from doing further harm to myself.

That October I suffered my first bout of depression in over 10 years. Once I realised what was going (it took me a while), I swiftly pulled out of all work projects and withdrew to the care of very close friends and the quiet safety of my home. I tried to read books and failed; I tried to watch films and couldn’t focus for more than a few minutes at a time. My attention span, never a soldier, had shrivelled up. So I found myself clutching my phone and switching between the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter apps for hours at a time. Not to post — I couldn’t think of anything — but to consume. Yet with every double-tap on the home button, with every pull-to-refresh motion, things got worse.

Every receding wave left a despair more profound than the one before — yet every time I wanted nothing more than the comforting waters to return. Pull to refresh.

It was a sensation like nothing I’d known before, like consuming a particularly vile drug: A quickening of the heartbeat, a wave of warmth and comfort, then a bleak, sickly, and tense emptiness, like the tide withdrawing from the shore and leaving nothing but loneliness in its damp wake. No matter how desperately I clutched at it, the water ran through my fingers, and every receding wave left a despair more profound than the one before— yet every time I wanted nothing more than the comforting waters to return. Pull to refresh.

It was a nauseating vicious cycle, and I had to get out. There was no one there to help me because I wouldn’t have known how to explain it. All I had were brief instances when the fog lifted a little and I was able to see that something bad was going on. I waited for one of those instances, then mustered all available energy and made what seemed, at the time, one of the most important decisions of my life: I deleted the Facebook app. Then Instagram. Then Twitter. I turned off all notifications, of which there’d been many. Except for text messages and calls from close friends and family, my phone was now silent. The world was suddenly much smaller, much more manageable, much more intimate. It allowed me to get better. And a few weeks later, without much thinking about it, I was back on social media.

The story might have ended there—had my depression not returned with a vengeance in the spring, plunging me right back into that horrible, horrible vicious cycle. Off the social apps went. But this time, maybe because I needed something to hold on to and pseudo-scientific inquiry felt like a good enough straw, I set out to understand what exactly was going on here.

It quickly turned out that it wasn’t just me. The friends and acquaintances I spoke to who had been through episodes of depression all told similar stories: during depression, social media was off limits. Some had taken breaks. Others had deleted their accounts. One had been ordered by his therapist to get off Facebook. Nobody had given it much thought. Most considered it simply another of the many mysteries surrounding depression, this weird disease of which not very much is known except common symptoms and general statistics.

Common symptoms: You’re very low on energy. You can’t concentrate. You can’t deal with people. You can’t deal with stress. You may suffer headaches, back pain, sleeping disorders, and wildly varying appetite. Most of the time, you are not so much sad but catatonic. You just don’t feel anything. Except like a loser. And you can’t escape it. As Sylvia Plath wrote: “[W]herever I sat — on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok — I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”

General statistics: The German Ministry for Education and Research states that the probability of experiencing major depression once in your life lies between 16 and 20 percent in Germany, where I live. The U.S. National Institute of Mental Health says that in 2012, an estimated 16 million adults in the US, or 6.9 percent of the adult population, had suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year. The World Health Organisation estimates there are 350 million people suffering from depression globally, and that by 2020 it will be the second most widespread disease in the world.

This is shoddy statistics, but: 350 million people is one quarter of Facebook’s global user base.

There is no scientific research to back up my claim or explain this link between depression and social media use — or at least I haven’t been able to find any. There are plenty of studies into how social media may cause depression, but the evidence is thin: For every study claiming proof that social media is harmful, there’s another saying it isn’t. (One study from the University of Missouri from February 2015 basically tried to settle the debate by saying it all depends on how you use it. Stalk acquaintances and compare your life to theirs, and bang, here comes depression. Dotingly check on your friends and family, and you’ll be happy. Which begs the question: Have the researchers ever actually used Facebook?)

“Oh yes, I see that a lot,” my psychiatrist said matter-of-factly when I asked her whether her other depressive patients were also unable to use social media. “One even dumped her phone recently.”

Yet while there may be no research into the effect social media may have on an already existing depression, to specialists that effect appears so obvious that it isn’t even particularly noteworthy. “Oh yes, I see that a lot,” my psychiatrist at the Psychiatric University Clinic of Berlin’s Charité hospital said matter-of-factly when I asked her whether her other depressive patients were also unable to use social media. “One even dumped her phone recently.” That’s because social media and constant availability cause stress, she explained. “Also, when you’re suffering from depression, you don’t usually want to see other people’s amazing lives.”

Seeking more explanations, I went all the way up the food chain to Professor Isabella Heuser, director of the Charité’s Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, who swiftly confirmed my psychiatrist’s assessment of the incompatibility of depression and social media. (While nearly all patients she’s seen stay off social media altogether, she did concede that some patients go on Facebook when they can’t sleep at night, although she says they generally don’t, or can’t, talk about their depression on the platform and don’t get anything positive out of the experience).

I laid out to her what I’d found out through self-observation.

  1. That I wasn’t able to perform for social media anymore. I used to go through life mentally composing tweets and spotting photo opportunities for Instagram. That was unthinkable now. The mere thought caused so much anxiety that I could barely unclench my jaws.
  2. That I now consciously suffered from comparing my life to others’, which was also new.
  3. That I was experiencing a powerful craving for instant gratification that also felt incredibly harmful — remember the receding waters — and that wreaked further havoc to my already suffering attention span.

“Well, it’s easy to explain that physiologically,” Professor Heuser said when she heard the last point. “Through your daily engagement with social media your brain has learned that when you log on in the morning, a pleasant feeling will follow. Escapism, a positive world. That’s dopamine, anticipation, and you can still experience that. However, the positive feeling that usually follows — your organism can’t mount that response anymore. That’s a classic symptom of depression. You can’t feel joy or connection to others anymore.” And because my brain knows what joy used to feel like, she explained, its absence, that emptiness, is experienced subconsciously as painful. The fact that I found it so hard to resist the lure of said dopamine release was also easy to explain, she said: “Will has to do with energy. And depression is characterised precisely by a lack of energy.” And as far as my attention span went, well, if it had been low before, depression may now simply have pushed it below a threshold that I considered tolerable.

I took to my Facebook feed in search of material and the further I went back, the more jealous I felt at my own life as I had portrayed it.

So far, so medically straightforward. But what about the sudden sense of inferiority? I told Professor Heuser of one particularly crass example: Shortly before my second break-down, an artist friend had asked me to participate in a video examining the way we portray ourselves and our accomplishments, both online and off. I was to read out a few of my own social media posts. I took to my Facebook feed in search of material and the further I went back, the more jealous I felt at my own life as I had portrayed it. There they were, my glowing posts from Istanbul, Tokyo, and New York City, my tales of adventures in the West Bank and the Baltic Sea, the stories I’d written and magazines I’d edited, my clever commentary on current affairs, all rounded off by likes and comments from people I’d met (or not) at some point in my life — irrevocable proof that I’d once been successful, popular, joyful, happy even. At roughly 12 months into the past I was so overcome by self-pity that I had to break the whole thing off.

Professor Heuser thought for a moment. “That’s only indirectly related to social media,” she finally said. “People suffering from depression are incredibly creative at convincing themselves they are losers. But we live in a world that’s hyper-communicative — not really communicative, but narcissistic. Everybody is always ‘sharing’ something, only that it isn’t really sharing, it’s posting something to a wall in the hope that as many people as possible will come past and ‘like’ it. The purpose is to feed our narcissism. It is a many-voiced monologue, a cacophony. Everybody is posting something, but we aren’t talking to each other.”

This isn’t novel criticism to be levelled at either social media or contemporary culture, and under any other circumstance, I would have waved it away as Luddite. However, now for the first time in over 10 years of social media use did I actually understand it, feel the truth of it in my guts—and I realised to what extent I had happily played along. I was reminded of that famous quote by Carl Gustav Jung, the founder of analytical psychology: “Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself.” To a healthy person, some phoney dialogue might appear tedious at worst. But to someone suffering from depression, the superficiality of social media may just be outrightly harmful.

That’s an issue the media technologist and writer Deanna Zandt addressed in a talk she gave at Personal Democracy Forum in June 2015. Zandt presented the audience with a sample of photos from her social media feeds. In all of them she was all smiles; she was also, she revealed, at the time spiralling into the worst depressive period of her life. “The dissonance that was created for me by what was actually happening in my life versus what I thought I should be publicly sharing with my community made my condition that much worse.”

“All of this is leading us down this dangerous path of alienation. And not just from each other, but from our own selves. We’re walking down a technological thrust into collective depressive dissonance.”

Zandt blames digital culture’s focus on purity for blowing up the scale at which how we present ourselves in public differs from how we actually feel. “All of this is leading us down this dangerous path of alienation. And not just from each other, but from our own selves. We’re walking down a technological thrust into collective depressive dissonance.” Instead of building tools for “silly human mammals” who are “easily trained by positive reinforcement,” she argues, technologists should embrace the messiness of human life and put it into the core of the products they build. She doesn’t purport to know what this would look like, but her demand is clear: Digital culture should allow for that space between authenticity, connection, and vulnerability — in other words, intimacy.

Deanna Zandt, I hear you. But I am no media technologist. My solution to the problem posed by the incompatibility of depression and social media didn’t aim to change anyone’s life but my own. Yet maybe it was no less radical: Ruthlessly dispose of all fake intimacy and superficial interactions and focus what little energy I had on real connection. Take my feeble attention span and put it into the equivalent of an incubator. Learn to consider myself a worthy human being without the positive reinforcement of Twitter favs.

Which reminds me: Do people still call them favs?

I have been mostly off social media for seven months now. I have also deleted all non-social apps that trigger dopamine release and lure with escapism, like shopping apps and games. When I want to escape, I read a novel, and when I can’t concentrate, I go for a walk. I often leave the house without my phone. I have sworn off multitasking to the extent that for a while, I’ve even stopped listening to music while I work. And it made me feel a lot better. Sometimes I wish I were strong enough to delete my account on Facebook, which I now regard as the most dangerous of all social networks. As it is, I’ll keep my URL blocker on, limiting my daily dispense of methadone to 10 minutes and appreciating that they’ve made a separate Messenger app.

This wasn’t an easy article for me to write, and an even harder one to publish. I have become a much more private person in recent months and anyway, writing about depression does not fit with the professional version of myself I used to present online.

But while I’m worried about exposure, I also believe depression should be something we talk about more openly—everything else just feels ridiculous at this point. Ultimately I, like many other people, will have to find a way to cope with social media, just like I’ve had to learn to cope with the ready availability of sugary foods: through awareness and self-control. I don’t expect Twitter or Facebook to help me, just like I don’t expect Kraft Foods to do so. But I’d like to at least be aware of the risk factors — be they a propensity for diabetes, or depression.