Do Social Networks Make Us Sick?

Is there such as thing as Facebook Addiction Disorder? Mental health experts in Ottawa and around the world are now probing the dark side of social media to see what effect über-connectedness has on everything from eating to suicide.
Vito Pilieci gets a status update
By Vito Pilieci, Ottawa Citizen March 24, 2012

Ottawa researchers Dr. Gary Goldfield and his assistant Marisa Murray will study Facebook’s effects on social interaction this summer.

A couple of months ago, Marisa Murray stepped out to grab a bite to eat with a friend. The restaurant they chose was busy, and the table they sat at was shoehorned between two large families. They didn’t mind, but as Murray settled in, she found herself paying more attention to the people at the tables beside her than the person at her own.

What caught the clinical psychology student’s eye was that the families were socializing, but not with each other: Everyone, from the children to the grandparents, was nose deep in an electronic device.

“It was so strange. There was no conversation. Within the family, everyone had a cellphone. They ordered their appetizers, then they all got back to their device. There was minimal conversation among the family members,” said Murray, who studies at the University of Ottawa. “The conversation that was happening was along the lines of who was updating Facebook, what they were tweeting or a game they were playing. I couldn’t believe it. To witness firsthand what I have been reading in peer-review journal articles, it boggled my mind.”

Murray left the restaurant shocked by what she had seen and took her observations to her supervisor, Gary Goldfield, a clinical scientist in the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.

She was interested in how the proliferation of Internet devices and social media affects the family dynamic and, more specifically, what impact it has on healthy eating habits created during familial meal times.

Goldfield was intrigued by Murray’s questions and observations – they seemed to support anecdotal observations of his own – but he wanted to delve deeper.

In an age when Internet devices are always on, meeting face-toface is becoming increasingly rare as people choose to meet screento-screen. Goldfield wants to know what this new dynamic is doing to normal social interaction? How do these devices and social media services, such as Facebook, affect the way we socialize and communicate with each other? But, more than that, what impact do these social networks have on their user’s mental health?

Murray and Goldfield have teamed up and have scraped together funding to conduct a study this summer examining the impact Facebook has on people’s mental health and their everyday lives and interactions.

They aren’t alone.

John Lyons, director of CHEO’s mental health research group, has applied to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research for a grant to conduct his own study into the topic. However, Lyon’s study will be laser focused. With so much anecdotal evidence about the effects of cyberbullying and online taunts, he wants to know what role social media plays in a person’s decision to end their life, and if there is a way to leverage social technologies to reach out to people considering suicide.

“It’s becoming the medium by which young people communicate with each other. It’s a pretty significant social change,” said Lyons. “There are some very valuable things about social media and networking, and there are also some dangers. Historically, the (societal) changes have been in musical taste and style of dress. Now it has to do with technology and the use of technology to deal with social relations. It’s so fast moving and there is so much going on that it’s rather complicated to figure out the good and the bad aspects of it.”

The CHEO researchers are part of a growing number of psychologists and other health professionals eager to understand social media and the impact it is having on society. As the popularity of Facebook and other social media websites continues to soar, the online offerings are increasingly finding themselves under the microscope.

None is drawing more attention than Facebook, and it’s easy to see why.

With more than 800 million users accessing Facebook regularly, and roughly 425 million accessing the site using a mobile device, the service’s reach has become all-encompassing. There are 18 million Canadians on Facebook – more than half our population. More than 12 million of us visit the site daily. On a per-capita basis, Canada has the highest number of Facebook users in the world. The average Canadian has 225 “friends” on the social network, though recent studies from the University of Waterloo have shown that as many as half of our “friends” are people we don’t even really know.

Facebook, which is preparing to hold an initial public offering that will value it at $100 billion U.S., knows everything about its users. It knows what they do, who they hang out with, where they shop and when, what brands they like, what they watch on TV, what kind of music they listen to and who a user’s family members are. More than that, all of that information is shared with anyone a user has identified as a “friend.”

Users have now had seven years to figure out how to use sites like Facebook and Twitter and have fallen into regular usage patterns with those services. Daily social media usage habits are proving to be an untapped treasure trove of information about how the emerging digital era will affect our everyday lives in the years ahead.

If the results of early studies are any indication, the digital era may be turbulent.

Amanda Forest, a graduate student in the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, has been studying how people use the site.

“We thought people with low selfesteem may find Facebook a more appealing place to connect with people because they don’t have to have that awkwardness of in-person interaction,” she says.

“But, what we found was people with low self-esteem tend to express a lot of negative emotion and not so much positive emotion. The reactions they got wasn’t so great. People with low self-esteem were liked less.”

Similarly, Forest said people with high self-esteem posting positive status updates were rewarded with more comments and “likes” by their friends.

Her research, which has been published in the Association for Psychological Science’s journal Psychological Science, hasn’t yet examined how being ignored affects people with low self-esteem. However, she said it isn’t unreasonable to believe that it only further damages that individual’s perception of themselves, creating a slippery slope.

Boston-area pediatrician Gwenn O’Keeffe has coined the phrase “Facebook depression,” which she included in the newly revised American Academy of Pediatrics social media guidelines. The document is a guide for parents raising children growing up in the electronic world. Facebook acts as a type of magnifier for people who are susceptible to depression, O’Keeffe says.

In a speech delivered to the American Psychological Association in August, Larry Rosen, professor of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, outlined the results of some recent research, which also points to the darker side of social media.

He found:

? ? Teens using Facebook have more nar-cissistic tendencies while young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including anti-social behaviours;

? ? Daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression and other psychological disorders;

? ? Facebook can be distracting and can negatively impact learning. Studies found that middle school, high school and college students who checked Facebook at least once during a 15-minute study period achieved lower grades.

Rosen suggested that parents monitor their children’s use of social media but warned against trying to police their activity. He said policing a child’s online activity will only push the child to conduct that activity in a place or at a time when a parent can’t watch them.

Rosen suggested open communication about the benefits and dangers of social media and the importance of setting limits on the amount of time spent on social media websites.

Rosen’s warnings about monitoring the time spent on services like Facebook are timely given the steady increase in what some psychologists are calling Facebook Addiction Disorder – when people are afraid to disconnect from social media services because they think they’re going to missing something important.

The disorder, which is not a clinical diagnosis and is not yet recognized by the broader medical community, is attracting attention. In a paper that will soon be published in the journal Psychological Science, a team of researchers from Chicago University’s Booth Business School, led by Wilhelm Hofmann, has found that Facebook and social media websites may be as addictive as alcohol or cigarettes.

The researchers gave BlackBerrys to 205 people between the ages of 18 and 85 in the German city of Wurtzburg and then tracked how much they wanted to use social media. The study found that their desire to participate in social media websites, such checking Facebook or Twitter, was only surpassed by their desires to sleep and have sex.

The desire to stay connected “actually plagues us,” says Sydneyeve Matrix, a media professor at Queen’s University in Kingston.

“There is a genuine fear of missing out, and you aren’t paranoid. You are actually missing out on a lot of stuff that goes on – if you are not online, on Facebook specifically,” she said. “It’s becoming the destination. The default. For many people it’s the beginning and the end of their web experience.”

Matrix, whose field of expertise is online trends, says different generations are using social media in different ways. While older groups may be using it to see pictures of family members or brag about their latest accomplishments, younger generations are using it to gossip.

“They want to know who is dating who, where the next big party is and whether they can get notes from a lecture they missed,” she said. “The more we use our mobile phones, the more they become an extension of ourselves. I do see students quitting Facebook for exams because they feel the pressure to be on it and be distracted is so great that the only way they can deal with that is to take a big break.”

The urge to stay connected is a key component of the research that CHEO’s Goldfield plans to begin shortly.

“It’s a very real phenomena that happening. I see it in my clinical practice,” he said. “I’ve had three new (referrals) in the past two weeks from mothers saying, ‘I want to get my kids off Facebook’.”

As the research outlining the dangers of social media continues to pile up, none of the researchers are willing to completely write off websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Social media services have many good points, they say, but it’s important to understand their dangers as they become a greater part of our everyday lives.

“We need way more research in this area before we can make any definitive conclusions about the psychological risks or benefits of using social media,” said Goldfield.

The research that has been released so far has also attracted a fair share of critics who say the studies don’t identify whether Facebook and other social media services are the trigger for mental health issues or if the online services attract people who had issues before they signed up.

Goldfield and Murray’s study hopes to help answer some of those questions by monitoring the social media behaviour of 500 students at the University of Ottawa. The study, which will be the largest of its kind to date, will begin in the coming weeks and it should be completed by the end of the summer.

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