Earlier this month, a study linking Facebook to symptoms of depression garnered headlines far and wide. Apparently, the platform seemingly designed for constant comparison and discovery of what we’re missing out on in life doesn't nurture a healthy sense of self. But how does Facebook affect those who already suffer from depression? Or bipolar disorder? Or schizophrenia?
A small but intriguing new study presented at the British Sociological Association’s annual conference in Glasgow analyzed how people with various mental illnesses were impacted by their Facebook use. The lead researcher, Keelin Howard, interviewed 20 people ages 23 to 68 and found that while Facebook could be harmful during the periods when they were unwell, it could actually help people with mental illnesses while they were doing well.
“People who experience paranoia in general were more likely to become paranoid from using Facebook,” Howard told Fusion. “Sometimes they had particular sorts of ideas about surveillance and safety around technology. Technology is problematic for people who may have paranoid thinking, anyway. I think it’s the issue with the fact that it’s so public, and there’s a blurring between public and private on Facebook.”
Facebook also exacerbated some of the participants social anxieties, Howard said. When the handful of bipolar folks who participated in the study were experiencing manic symptoms, they posted "prolifically and expansively," something they later regretted.
But the social media site wasn’t all bad! Howard found it could provide valuable social support. “Some found it very useful as a means of communicating, especially when they were withdrawing from face-to-face social contact," Howard said. "So there were mixed results.”
They key, said Howard, comes down to coaching people with mental illnesses to use Facebook "strategically," so it helps social relationships more than it hurts them. This might mean being more more selective with friends (only friending people they actually knew and trusted), limiting the amount of time spent on the app, or even putting the Facebook app at the back of their apps list. Tips everyone could probably use.
The people in the study who learned to manage their expectations around Facebook, consciously "keeping it light" and focusing on the positives, were also able to get a better and more helpful experience out of the site. And planning ahead for periods of intense illness helped the people in the study use Facebook productively: One participant enlisted the help of her sister to change her Facebook password when she became manic.
Howard told Fusion she plans to continue her research using a bigger sample.