Is Social Media the New Vital Sign?


In the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal which has driven the #deletefacebook movement, is it time to consider social media as a vital sign? Would it seem odd when your doctor asks about your social media use? Would you know how to answer how much and how often you are on social media apps or sites? Should you be worried? Are some segments of the population more vulnerable than others? The short answer is…yes.

Mental health declining in adolescents

A new study in Clinical Psychological Science looks at depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes and screen time (computer, tablet or smartphone) among US adolescents. Two surveys totaling over 500,000 adolescents grades 8th through 12th examined national statistics on depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, deaths from suicide and suicide rates. The results were sobering: iGen adolescents (born between 1995 and 2012) in the 2010s spent more time communicating electronically and less on face-to-face interaction when compared to Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) or Gen X (born 1965 to 1984).

Why is this trend worrying? As humans, we are wired for face-to-face interaction and grow in crucial ways,  as those neural networks essential for the development of social skills are laid down during the process of verbal and non-verbal communication. The implications of this shift away from face-to-face interaction are emerging, but data from this survey suggest a troubling trend.

Social interaction can help form a safety net of sorts as we move through life; with this safety net dismantling, as the iGen’s media consumption research suggests, we may see an increase in the risk of suicides and suicidal behavior. Two elements are at play: one, a sense of belonging lessens, and two, there’s an increase in feeling like a burden on others. This combination reduces the likelihood that the individual will reach out for help and support. In the study design, age was constant while birth cohort and time-period were varied in order to look for changes across generations, namely GenX, Millennials, and iGen.

Findings indicate increases in suicide-related outcomes and depressive symptoms among American adolescents between 2010 and 2015. These findings aren’t explained by the economic fluctuations Americans experienced in that timeframe. The effects, unique to females, suggest that social media may have adverse effects on mental health. Something else is going on with males: while suicides increased, the data didn’t show increases in depressive symptoms or suicide-related outcome. The authors suggest that there are some other underlying issues at play, but they didn’t elaborate.

A current viewpoint in the Journal of Medical Internet Research calls for the question of making social media use a vital sign. Pediatricians already ask about screen-time as part of clinical care, and recommendations suggest a maximum of 2 hours a day, with one of those hours for homework.  However, in the age of tablets and smartphones, this seems unattainable.

Think about what you have shared on social media: photos, opinions, events, and places you visit, often without a filter. There are over 500 million tweets a day on Twitter, and Facebook has over one billion members – the data produced is staggering. What if social media data could be mined and connected to medical data? Has the time come to consider this,  given people are far more likely to be candid on social media than in their doctor’s office? How do we ensure safeguards if we connect these two data sets? Who would manage and monitor the data? What about privacy, who would get to see this data and make decisions based on it?

While we may not yet have clear answers, based on the impact social media use has on adolescent girls’ mental health, engaging in dialogue on these issues seems prudent. We must also address the imbalance in face-to-face vs online interactions in iGen if we are to positively impact mental health going forward.

Thanks for reading- Trina

(Opinions are my own)


Teens and increase in media consumption study


Social media as a new vital sign study


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