Social Media Is Redefining 'Depression'

Online communities like those on Tumblr are perpetuating ideas of "beautiful suffering," confusing what it means to be clinically depressed.
(Nikko Russano/flickr)

A few months ago, Laura U., a typical 16-year-old at an international school in Paris, sat at her computer wishing she looked just like the emaciated women on her Tumblr dashboard. She pined to be mysterious, haunted, fascinating, like the other people her age that she saw in black and white photos with scars along their wrists, from taking razor blades to their skin. She convinced herself that the melancholic quotes she was reading—“Can I just disappear?” or “People who die by suicide don’t want to end their lives, they want to end their pain”—applied to her.

Among Tumblr’s 140+ million blogs, social communities form around specific topics: music, fashion, photography, and also kinds of disorders. Months ago Laura was part of one such community, scrolling through hundreds of photographs on Tumblr that evoke negative emotions through art and call it depression. Black and white photographs of mystical emaciated women who stare off into the distance put psychological torment and beauty on the same page, and quotes like “So it’s okay for you to hurt me, but I can’t hurt myself?” and "I want to die a lovely death," try to justify self-harm. All this is at the tip of anyone’s fingertips: anyone can search tags like “self-harm,” “depression,” or “sadness,” and find thousands of blogs with a similarly distorted vision of what it means to be depressed.  

“Even those people who are ‘wannabe depressed’ still feel the same emotions. It’s dangerous to talk about ‘wannabe depressives’ because we don’t know for a fact that they are in fact wannabes,” Laura says. “There are a lot of people that suffer.”

Certainly those who are “wannabe depressed”—a term Laura used to describe those who seem to seek out and share imagery associated with torment, but are not clinically depressed—believe in their own pain, but they often blur the line between depression and commonplace negative emotions. This makes it difficult to tell what’s “wannabe” and what’s clinical depression.

This online cultivation of beautiful sadness is easy to join: anyone can take a picture, turn it black and white, pair it with a quote about misunderstood turmoil, and automatically be gratified with compassion and pity. And this readily accessible sea of dark poetry could easily drown out those whose suffering has reached the clinical level. During the vulnerable years during which adolescents seek out self-affirmation and recognition from others, this new, easy promise of being recognized as strong, beautiful, and mysterious by Tumblr “followers” can be very tempting, says Dr. Mark Reinecke, chief psychologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Too often, it just leads to more teenagers believing and feeling they are depressed, self-pitying, self-harming.

“When you look at secular trends and epidemiological research completed over the last several decades, there seems to be a slow and fairly consistent increase in levels of depression for each succeeding generation of teenagers,” says Reinecke.

(soundlessfall/Lee Forrest/Matthew Wild/Radikha Bhagwat/Flickr)

Tumblr isn’t the only place this glorification of self-pity happens.

“Tumblr is a very easy place for people to feed off of this kind of frenzy because of their ‘reblogging’ system, [which makes] it very easy to [spread] pictures and gifs… particularly gifs, which can be quite graphic,” Laura says. “But there are specific sites [for] specific conditions, like ‘Prettythin’, for pro-anorexics. It’s grown like wildfire.”

The short, soundless, looped video of gifs makes self-hatred into practical bite-sized packages. On Tumblr, Laura came across many of these, some of which show teenagers cutting themselves.

This sort of exhibitionism of self-harm, suicide, depression, or self-loathing under the pretext that it is beautiful, romantic, or deep is hardly unusual. Today the depression many teenagers, like those on Tumblr, say they have is one that’s linked to a notion of “beautiful” suffering.

“Tumblr was, at the start, a photography and art website,” Laura says. “If you link that together with depression blogs, you end up with a glorification of these conditions. There’s definitely a growing community of people feeding off of each-other’s strong emotions, and it’s definitely visible online.”

Searching the “depression” tag on Tumblr now brings up this disclaimer at the top of the page: “If you or someone you know is dealing with an eating disorder, self harm issues, or suicidal thoughts, please visit our Counseling & Prevention Resources page for a list of services that may be able to help.”

“There is more interest in the topic and more self-identification,” says Dr. Stan Kutcher, an adolescent psychiatry expert and the Sun Life Financial Chair in Adolescent Mental Health, who says he sees a trend of romanticized depression, of self-victimization. “I see that on lots of social media. Not just Tumblr,” he says.

Kutcher says the problem is in misinformation. Adolescents are getting a lot of information from the media, on websites such as Tumblr, or from their friends, not from reputable sources.

“In this waterfall of information there is a lack of critical understanding,” Kutcher says. “You see kids self-identifying as having that depression, but they don’t have a depression. They’re upset, or they’re demoralized, or they’re distressed by something.” In other words, adolescents are confusing the clinical disorder called “depression” with normal, everyday challenges.

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Anne-Sophie Bine is a writer based in Paris.

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