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It turns out that emotions expressed on Facebook can affect your mood. It can even provoke instances of elation or depression. In some ways, exposure to Facebook has been called “emotionally contagious”. And now there’s research data to back it up.
Much research has been devoted to studying the downside of social media. Many of them are in fact, legitimate. For example, addiction to social media is an epidemic among our nation’s teens, and this seems to be the case everywhere. Potential downsides of social media are many, as you can see below. Yet nearly half of the sources I reviewed, suggested possible benefits as well.
What the negative findings seem to overlook are the many positive effects social media has on its users. In other words, the use of Facebook, Twitter, etc, can be good or bad, depending on how it is used. Sound familiar?
“Concerns about the negative impacts of social media have dominated public debate. However recent studies show there are clear health benefits to being online and connected.”
-Joanna Egan. Women’s Health
Here are some frequently-overlooked positive effects that social media can have on mental health:
Relieve social isolation and loneliness by opening up new communication pathways
Social media offers the chance to connect with others, and offers enough anonymity to allow people with mental illness to express themselves without revealing their identities. In other words, it allows self-expression without the danger of stigma.
Inspire healthy lifestyle changes
We’re kidding, right? Actually no. Social media can be used as a motivational tool to achieve healthy lifestyle goals such as quitting smoking or attending the gym on a regular basis. Announcing a goal via social media and regularly posting about it promotes accountability to others, creating positive reinforcement from friends and stimulating an online “social support system” which may lead the aspirant to form or join other communities dedicated to similar pursuits. This is a classic case of “positive emotional contagion.” Research has proven that sharing a goal publicly not only promotes accountability but helps one to stay focused, and dramatically increases one’s chance of success, whether it be weight loss, or sobriety for recovering addict/alcoholics.
Aid medical research for mental health professionals
Social media can benefit therapists and psychiatrists by extending their reach. Mental health professionals are increasingly using social networking tools such as Facebook, Tumblr, and Pinterest to collect data that can be used in research, and to connect with other professionals in the online community.
Make social support and interventions possible
Twenty-four hour suicide prevention hotlines aren’t the only sources of intervention. An increasing number of websites are now offering support through social media channels. An example of such a site is ReachOut.com, an online youth mental health service that provides a chatroom, information resources, videos, and podcasts. ReachOut has a sizable Facebook community with 21,000 likes, and a presence on many other social media, including Twitter, Tumblr, and a Youtube channel. ReachOut provides an anonymous forum for people to connect, share personal experiences, and even allows them to sign up for an SMS service to receive daily advice, motivational messages, and information useful for recovery or seeking help.
Twitter has a feature called Tweetups, which are face-to-face meetups involving people with similar interests that are organized online. These may range from people who share a love of playing bridge to groups for recovering addicts. New relationships resulting from tweetups are ubiquitous nowadays, and we can thank Twitter for that.
Strengthen existing relationships
Tweetups are just one example of how social media can build new relationships. Social media (and not only Twitter) can also help manage relationships, especially with those who live far away, thus breaking down geographical barriers. It can also be helpful at maintaining relationships for those with disabilities, such as elderly individuals, and people with physical handicaps that limit mobility and prevent travel outside the home. Far from increasing isolation, social media can provide alternative means of finding support, even helping to lift depression, and as Tweetups have shown, can provide a healthy excuse to go outside rather than stay cooped up indoors or hunched over a computer.
Provide teens with opportunities to develop technical and other skills needed to function in society.
A common dilemma among people with mental illness (including depression) is the reluctance to talk to people closest to them about their problems. More and more young people are turning to the Internet for health advice, including topics such as contraception, acne treatments, etc.
Far from being a singularly-destructive force in their development, social media can in fact do quite the opposite. Many teens will post online what they are reluctant to share with their parents. For troubled youth, this may make early intervention by concerned friends and peers more possible. For others, it provides a rich opportunity to experiment with different modes of creative self-expression, which in itself is therapeutic. While it is impossible to deny the dangers of social media, parents may choose to focus on the positive uses of online media in order to promote better online habits in their children.
Neutral – good and bad
Kevin Naruse is a Science and Technology correspondent for Painted Brain News
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