Leadership Blog Series: Social Media and Depression, A Potential Link

Welcome to our leadership blog series! This month,  Thomas Macsay -the Vice-President of Membership, NMSA International – discusses how technology and social media use has affected our happiness and overall wellbeing.

Social Media & Depression

A Potential Link

If we take a look around it is pretty apparent that the world and humanity seem to be struggling. I believe it is reflected in the global epidemic of depression that has consumed our society, even in the face of increased awareness and public outreach. The World Health Organization (WHO) now reports more than 300 million cases of depression worldwide, with a direct correlation to the causation of 800,000 suicides per year. It ranks it as one of the most burdensome diseases in the world, yet the majority who clinically meet the criteria are untreated or undertreated (Mathers et al., 2006).

Depression can not only be debilitating to activities of daily living, school, and social relationships but also has far-reaching consequences into cardiovascular health, cancer, diabetes, and obesity (De Choudrouy et al., 2013).

It is no wonder that we see a continued increase in chronic diseases alongside depression. It is important to also recognize that depression could be a consequence of chronic diseases among the growing list of other contributors to degrading health. Over the coming 20 years, depression is projected to be the leading cause of disability in high-income nations such as the United States (Mathers et al., 2006).

One of the many things that has increased concurrently with depression over the past decade has been internet usage, specifically social media, which now contributes to more than 50% of current screen time. It is no surprise that the population between 18 to 29 years old are the ones most commonly accessing social media, with a larger percentage of that population being female (Duggan & Brenner, 2013).

There has also been a tremendous increase in the amount of time that people spend simultaneously accessing two or more forms of media, such as watching Netflix while browsing instagram on their phone, quite commonly in social settings with significant others, friends, and family. It’s a struggle not to when we have so many apps, platforms, and different forms of technology that allow us to constantly access people in our online communities, sparking a dopamine response and further cementing the reward we perceive when accessing social media.

This dramatic shift in how people engage with media is important when understanding the relationship between media use and mental health. Recent reports suggest that media multitasking may be uniquely associated with deficits in basic cognitive processes such as the ability to successfully filter out irrelevant information and ignore distraction (Becker, 2013).

So what actually happens when we spend too much time on social media?

A study by Hanna et al., 2017 showed that Facebook use was associated with greater social comparison and self-objectification, which are both related to lower self-esteem, poorer mental health, and body image concerns. Nighttime-specific social media use predicted poorer sleep quality, translated as shorter sleep duration, later bedtimes and rise times, and longer sleep latencies. Alternatively, an association between emotional investment in social media and poor sleep implies that young people struggle to unwind for fear of not catching a new trend or being the first to see and share interesting content.

Another study by Mills et al. 2018 found that the most common way users self-present on social media is through the taking and uploading of “selfies”. By creating the most flattering image of themselves via different camera angles, lighting, colour editing, skin retouching, and photoshopping, users are engaged in a particularly risky behavior in terms of negative impact on body image and self esteem.

Young girls and women represent the population most likely to post “selfies” of this nature as they are constantly bombarded by photoshopped images of models or social media personalities, leading to feelings of inferiority (Toma & Hancock, 2010). As a result, social media users are driven to present the most attractive versions of themselves to others in order to make a favorable impression. These photos, however, often do not portray an accurate depiction of one’s physical appearance in a deceiving fashion that makes others compare themselves to unfair standards. It has been found that untouched selfies in general increase anxiety and decrease confidence, but both untouched and retouched photos result in significantly lower levels of feeling attractiveness (Toma & Hancock, 2010).

How is our culture adjusting to social media?

According to Rodney Lawn et al. 2018, who performed his study with the support of the Australian Government at the Center for Positive Psychology, University of Melbourne, the ideal person of the “West” is someone who is autonomos, expressive, and comfortable in the spotlight. In all sense of the definition this is someone who is extroverted, outwardly confident in themselves, and is generally perceived as happy by society. “This study” suggests that introverted individuals face the challenge of being perceived as weak or depressed in comparison to this assumed “normal.” Unfortunately we live in world were introverts feel they are forced to take on extroverted qualities in order to keep up, which in turn leads to a decrease in personal satisfaction due to the psychological cost of trying to maintain a false self.

A fair amount of our population and generation does not fall into the subset of people who thrive and become more empowered in themselves by being so outspoken, expressive, and connected in general, particularly through social media. The majority of us though, are steady consumers of social media, leading us to look at curated images all day that do not accurately reflect reality. Yet, we still choose to ingest snapshots everyday which we constantly compare ourselves too. It is no wonder that we have become more depressed with our personal reality when it looks like the rest of the world is having a great time, and looking great while doing it.

So it seems the more content we have access to, the more we lose to connection with presence in our lives.  Based on the research, the time we used to fill with who and what was actually in front of us brought us more satisfaction before our culture became ingrained with social media and global communication. It’s funny that we now have the ability to access vast amounts information, more than we could possibly dream of, but in a classic human psychological twist it seems that social media has bred one of the most addictive behaviors in our current society.

Technology and the ability to communicate has far outpaced what humans are capable of adapting to in a reasonable amount of time, but that is just what happens when technology progresses exponentially every 18 months.

Now it is all not that bad we might say. There are a number of sources of online content that provide opportunities for people to follow their passion while sharing their stories, sometimes resulting in a solid income or further opportunities that would have previously been unavailable to certain populations. There are opportunities to gain knowledge on a vast number of topics and different learning platforms that have previously never been available. Non-profits, start ups, visionaries, musicians, artists, and so many more have an opportunity to gain a large following who previously would have never been presented with an opportunity to do so.

Unfortunately even if the messages we are sharing are informative, inspiring, and empowering or are about depression, its burden, and individuals struggles with it, we have to remember that these posts themselves are likely driving people towards more depressive tendencies no matter how well meaning and transparent our social media presence is. Furthermore, the limit of the human psyche for meaningful relationships is about 150 people, according to Dr. Robin Dunbar who is an Oxford anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist. When we are interacting with hundreds of different individuals everyday that we have no emotional connection too, we are expunging social and loving energy that should otherwise be preserved for our own well being and close friends. It is no wonder we feel so dull, disconnected, and depressed.

This has to be something we are brutally aware of. We are more globally connected than we ever have been, but we have never been so disconnected from our own lives. Social media isn’t going anywhere, so there has to be another solution.

Here is a list of challenges I would propose our community takes to combat social media depression:

    • Avoiding screen time in general for at least the first and last 30 minutes of the day
    • Setting clear boundaries for when we access social media – such as lunch breaks or for half an hour when we get home
    • Posting photos that are not selfies – let’s show what is actually beautiful in our lives and highlight our environment, friends, and family. Let highlight what is ugly in our lives too.
    • Unfollowing individuals or profiles that we are cause us to critically compare ourselves to or make us feel as if our life is not great or exciting
    • Swearing off social media use around friends, family, and important communities
  • Go for a walk once a day without any electronics on our person

If you do find yourself depressed and down, I really hope you take time to be present with yourself and the life you live. We are the incarnation of pure nature and spirit, and that simplicity is more beautiful than any retouched and edited photo we will ever see online. The honest hearty laughs we experience by being silly and present with our loved ones is so much more fun and healthier than any meme or joke we will ever find online. The peace and fulfillment we can find by being present with ourselves, even with a simple lifestyle, will be more fulfilling than any social media presence we will ever have in our lives.

I want you to be happy. I want you to feel beautiful. I want you to be grateful for whatever life you have, because we need to be more grateful for life itself. I want all of us to be educated and aware what we are doing to our well-being when use social media – for ourselves and our patients.

Author: Thomas Macsay


Thomas is a 5th year at Bastyr University California in the Naturopathic medical program. He also attends the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine pursuing a Doctorate in Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine. Tom is the lead planner for the Restore the Vis Retreat that is held in San Diego, CA annually as part of the Association for Naturopathic Revitalization. He now serves on the Board of Directors for the NMSA as the VP of membership. With a background in Kinesiology, Personal Training, and Massage therapy he spends most of his time focusing on natural approaches to Sports Medicine. In his free time he enjoys surfing, rock climbing, gardening, bee keeping, playing music, and traveling whenever the chance arises.


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