‘Facebook depression’ claim is research-challenged

By Anne Collier

The good news is, there’s a lot of good advice for pediatricians and parents in “Clinical Report: The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families,” just published in the journal Pediatrics. The bad news is, the “Facebook depression” part is not grounded in the very research the report cites – and of course that’s the part (on p. 802 of the PDF version of the report) that all the media coverage picked up on and got wrong because, at best, it’s overstated in the report. In an audio interview for ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid in CNET, the report’s lead author, Dr. Gwenn O’Keefe, seemed to back off from the report’s statement that “depression 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 [emphasis mine].” Dr. O’Keefe told Larry: “These are kids who are already really struggling emotionally and psychologically and Facebook is perhaps making it worse, or certainly not helping the situation. A kid who’s just a normal teenager having the ups and downs of teenage life – they’re not going to suddenly have a clinical depression because of spending time on Facebook. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence of that whatsoever.”

And the peer-reviewed study cited in the report’s section “doesn’t have anything to do with ‘Facebook depression’,” said its author, Joanne Davila of State University of New York, Stony Brook. “The work that I have done that has been cited as evidence for ‘Facebook depression’ has been completely mis-cited by the media and other people who have talked about it, which is very, very unfortunate.” What Dr. Davila found in a study that hasn’t been published yet, she told Larry, was that, “just the use of social networking – how frequently people engage in using Facebook for example – is not associated with depressive systems… Really, social networking is just another salient venue where problematic relationships can play out and can have an impact on depression.” I so hope parents and pediatricians will hear the “just another venue” part of what Dr. Davila said. For Pete’s sake, don’t fear Facebook. It’s not the problem. It’s just another place where problems can flare up – where human interaction, positive and negative, occurs.

So Time’s focus in its coverage is right on point. When pediatricians are asking their patients about how things are going in their lives, they should be asking about how they’re going on cellphones, on Xbox Live, and on Facebook too, because what’s going on in those “places” is part of their everyday socializing – just part of their lives. Doctors who ask about the Facebook part, too, are to be commended.

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