Social Media Is Redefining 'Depression'

“People use the word ‘depression’ if they can’t find their keys, or if they've had a fight with their mother or father, or if they’ve had an argument with their boyfriend or girlfriend, if they didn’t make the school team or didn’t do well on an exam,” Kutcher says. “When we use the word ‘depression’ for every negative emotional state, the word loses its meaning.” Kutcher says this over-diagnosis of normal human experience is indeed a social trend.

“The pendulum has swung from ‘let’s never talk about it and let’s never educate ourselves about it’ to ‘let’s everyone blab about it,’” Kutcher says. “It’s a very interesting phenomenon. How you respond to an affective state depends on what that state is. If I’ve been demoralized, I don’t need Prozac, for Christ’s sake.”

This phenomenon affects teenage girls disproportionately: between 2008 and 2010, 12 percent of teenage girls aged between 12 and 17 suffered from a major depressive episode, which is three times higher than the rate of their male counterparts (4 percent), according to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2012

Reinecke proposes an explanation for this: girls and boys in modern society are socialized differently. Boys are socialized to take action. While not always helpful in managing their problems, it helps get their mind off of them for a time. Girls are pushed to dwell on their experience.

“What you can get sometimes is a reverberating “echo chamber” of girls who are sharing these experiences and these thoughts and it potentiates the negative feelings, the depression,” Reinecke says.

Closed social media sites facilitate this grouping even more. Communities are set up all around affinities, designed around developing homogenous social groups rather than diverse ones. Eric Meyers, assistant professor of information science at the University of British Columbia, calls this the Silver Bubble Problem. When you search for things repeatedly, the system tends to retrieve similar things to present to you.

“Things don’t challenge your world-view,” Meyers says. “You don’t get contact with other ideas, and as a general rule you tend to discount them anyway. There [are] both empowering and challenging aspects of [social media]. There have been a lot of really great civic engagement opportunities for young people that have come out of social media. At the same time, there is a lot of narcissism and stewing in their own juices.”

The teenagers who group together and, in Laura’s words, “feed off of each other’s obsessions” contact other teenagers with the same ideas, the same attitudes. Reinecke says identifying with people with similar views, in this case others who claim to be depressed, just reinforces that feeling.

“Teenagers will say, ‘My friends understand me. They get it,’” Reinecke says. “All right, good, but when you’re with them, does it lead you to feel better? Do they give you a different perspective on the world, or different things that you could try to improve things? The answer is: ‘Well, no, but they do understand me.’”

The Silver Bubble Problem makes it difficult for those inside the community to see the outside world in the first place. But they often don’t want to get out because to leave the community would be to lose the people who understand them.

“It’s important for suffering people to have these communities online so that they can talk,” Laura says. “It helps people who feel isolated.”

Laura describes how difficult it was to get out. She managed because of people in her non-virtual life who made her realize she had to stop doing these mildly masochistic things to herself. She decided to stop following self-harm blogs and hasn’t been on “Prettythin” for at least eight months.

“I just wanted a sense of community, to find people who felt the same way I did without having to reach out on my own, because that was quite daunting,” Laura says. “I felt different. The community is telling themselves that they’re different.” Today, Laura looks at her own case with more perspective, understanding that a sizeable part of what she felt then had to do with this culture. She now says she is well on the road to recovery and instead uses Tumblr as a provider of inspiring images.

This sense of being different, of understanding the world for what it truly is, is the gratification these teenagers seek. If they are part of this community, they are part of something dark and beautiful, something misunderstood by the rest of their peers. They have depth and secrets that no one else can understand.

For a fragile mind, these communities seem to provide the perfect solution: support, understanding, acceptance. To be accepted by this community, they have to advertise their suffering. Teenagers thus subconsciously choose to suffer to fit in and get acceptance, says Laura.

Despite the ongoing expansion of the virtual world and all its nooks and crannies, the problem is avoidable, according to Laura.

“If you don’t go out of your way to find those things, you won’t come into contact with them,” she says. “A lot of [young people] don’t really try to avoid it. It’s the responsibility of the people that go online.”

For Kutcher, the solution lies in recreating the distinction between normal emotional states and the clinical condition of depression and the way to go about this is through education, especially of professionals that work with young people at schools or other institutions.

“It’s quite easy to differentiate,” Kutcher says. “You just have to know what kind of questions to ask and understand what the answers mean. But we don’t have the cadre of trained human health services providers that have those skillsets, frankly. That’s another huge challenge that we have: to educate the people that the kids will go to if they need assistance.” 

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Anne-Sophie Bine is a writer based in Paris.

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