Depressed? It Must Be Facebook

Or: Much Ado About Nothing

I believe many things, and one of them is this: July is the height of "the silly season." In presidential politics, it seems that this time of year is reserved for the most strident posturing and the loudest rhetoric, because the candidates are trying to figure out a way to stay top-of-mind with an electorate that is more concerned with summer vacation and less beset with angst over the reasons why Quantitative Easing needs to be a policy of the Federal Reserve.

But the silliness is not the province of politics alone. A few days ago, the media reported on a study done by researchers at the University of Wisconsin that concluded Facebook is indeed safe for consumption. "Counseling patients or parents regarding the risk of 'Facebook Depression' may be premature," the study concluded.

It reminded me of Mark Twain's classic comment: "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Indeed.

This particular study caught my eye because of my own immersion in social media -- I publish several magazines on the subject and am a regular contributor to FOX News. I was curious to see whether the manner in which I make my living had an adverse effect on the mental health of the nation's youth. So I was somewhat relieved by the study's conclusions.

But drilling down into the structure and the substance of the study revealed some interesting tidbits of information. First, the study sample consisted of 190 University of Wisconsin-Madison students between the ages of 18 and 23. Each student was evaluated for signs of depression.

The students were screened for depression and were then sent questions by text message over the course of the ensuing week to find out if they were online, how many minutes they had been online and what sort of browsing or activities they were doing online. More than half of the participants reported spending 30 minutes or fewer engaged on Facebook or other social media. Almost 40 percent said they were on Facebook for more than half an hour but less than two hours. Somewhat less than ten percent indicated that they spent more than two hours on Facebook.

In the end, the study found that the amount of time spent on Facebook, whether it is a few minutes or several hours, had no bearing on whether they were depressed. "Our findings are similar to those from studies of other communication applications such as e-mail and chat, which also found no association with depression," the study concluded.

It was only last year that the American Academy of Pediatrics coined the phrase "Facebook depression" and gave parents worldwide yet another reason to worry about the mental state of their children.

Since the introduction of radio as a mass medium in the 1920s, scientists and parents (sometimes mutually exclusive terms) have worried about the effect of electronic media on society. Clerics, social scientists and groups of concerned parents have all taken their turns denouncing new mass media as bad influences, horrible role models and occasions of sin. I recall specifically a series of studies in the 1970s that purported to prove that television viewing contributed to depression in adolescents; but, as it turns out, the observations that led to these conclusions could have been interpreted many ways.

Young people, especially those between the ages of 18 and 23, can be depressed about many things that have nothing to do with Facebook and everything to do with social status, romance, and money (or lack of them). As busy as we parents are, we sometimes catch only furtive glances at our kids and wonder if they are okay today because they are moody or quiet or distracted. Do we worry too much? Well, no. There is a school of thought that says a parent can never worry "too much." But it is just as important to worry wisely and well, and pronouncements from doctors, no matter how well meaning, sometimes are not really helpful.

To its credit, the study does suggest that parents keep an eye on their children's social media usage and their moods. But as parents, shouldn't we do that anyway? And shouldn't we bundle that in with how our kids drive cars, the people with whom they associate, and the hour at which they come home?

Anyway, I was relieved to see that social media -- or media in general -- are not the bad influence that some people imagine. The Facebook Depression studies seem to be well-intentioned, even if they do seem to be done in such a way that a conclusion is reached before the evidence is presented.