A new Canadian study says some teens may be vulnerable to depression and mental illness later in life due to brain triggers from using social media sites, like Facebook.
The study, led by University of Montreal professor Sonia Lupien and published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology looked at the behaviour of 88 participants between the ages of twelve and seventeen years. Researchers looked at the effect simple actions on the social media site had on the teenager’s cortisol levels, which were taken four times per day over the course of three days. They found those participants with more than three-hundred friends had high levels of cortisol, and say they suspect levels would rise with users who have even more friends than that.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes in the human body including immune response and metabolism. Elevated levels of cortisol are associated with a range of maladies including weight gain, heart disease, lowered immune function and high blood pressure. A 2013 study from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Science that was published in Science suggested that high cortisol levels were triggers for mental illness, particularly for teens.
“We have discovered a mechanism for how environmental factors, such as stress hormones, can affect the brain’s physiology and bring about mental illness,” said Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D, the study’s lead. “We’ve shown in mice that stress in adolescence can affect the expression of a gene that codes for a key neurotransmitter related to mental function and psychiatric illness. While many genes are believed to be involved in the development of mental illness, my gut feeling is environmental factors are critically important to the process.”
Sawa says cortisol has such a profound on some youngsters because the teenage years are critical ones for brain development.
So what, exactly, is triggering depression in those who use Facebook frequently? Another study from researchers at the University of Houston and Palo Alto University published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology says it’s what psychologists call “social comparison”. The name of the study “Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms” lays it even more plain.
“It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand,” said the study’s author Mai-Ly Steers. “You should feel good after using Facebook,” she adds. “However…the unintended consequence is that if you compare yourself to your Facebook friends’ ‘highlight reels,’ you may have a distorted view of their lives and feel that you don’t measure up to them, which can result in depressive symptoms. If you’re feeling bad rather than good after using Facebook excessively, it might be time to reevaluate and possibly step away from the keyboard.”
Professor Lupien, meanwhile, suggest that a follow up study may be required to validate the findings of the University of Montreal study because of a latency effect.
“We did not observe depression in our participants,” she cautions. “However, adolescents who present high stress hormone levels do not become depressed immediately; it can occur later on. Some studies have shown that it may take 11 years before the onset of severe depression in children who consistently had high cortisol levels.”