Growing depression in the connected world

In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, Mark Zuckerberg, chairman and CEO of Facebook, waves at the CEO summit during the annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Lima, Peru. Zuckerberg released a missive Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017, outlining his vision for the social network and the world at large. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix, File)

Much has been lost through the advent of the Internet. With the arrival of social media, much of the youngest generation (with the means and ability) has committed itself to a holographic facsimile of life. As with the relationship between all generations, those observing college-aged kids of today generally fail to grasp the growing complexities of life resulting from instant connectivity and the omnipresence of information.

As David Brooks wrote in a New York Times column on diminished connections in the modern world, “When we’re addicted to online life, every moment is fun and diverting, but the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying.” For this generation, the ability or desire to unplug is fading as social and digital media become more and more intertwined with everyday life. As we research connections between the connected world, isolation and depression the spread of digital life seems all the more ominous.

Millennials and Gen-Zers are profoundly aware of the lives of others in a way that can be both inspiring and paralyzing. The periscope of online existence isolates a carefully curated representation of others’ lives. Just as a scare in a horror film isn’t lessened by the knowledge that the scene is acted, knowing that social media streams are staged and crafted does little to lessen the resulting envy or isolation. We know these are well-acted plays; yet we react as if they are genuine. The digital revolution has altered the norms of social interaction in an irreparable way.  

Olga Khazan wrote in The Atlantic that we have a tendency to relay mundane experiences in social situations. This ensures easier conversation and connection, where tales of “extraordinary experiences” are isolating. Khazan argued “In social interactions, people aim for relatability, not impressiveness. More important than having undergone something, it seems, is having someone understand.”

It is easy to see how social media flips this concept. Going off a Facebook or Twitter feed of a college student, the ordinary experiences of life are stripped away with only highlights published for the world to see. Instead of the commonplace experiences that make up deep conversations with close friends, we have a gallery of the extraordinary.

This generation, faced with a skewed looking glass, also suffers from record rates of depression, with 44 percent of college students in America suffering from symptoms of depression as of 2012. Oddly, there has not been a corresponding increase in treatment. Researchers have begun looking for a connection between depression and the inextricable nature of social media in the lives of this generation.

A 2014 University of Pittsburgh study proposed a similar relationship between depression and social media, with researchers hypothesizing that “exposure to highly idealized representations of peers on social media [may elicit] feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and/or more successful lives.” While researchers could not determine the exact nature of the relationship, those individuals who used social media the most “reported greater depression.”

In his column, David Brooks wrote that we’re seeming to reach a saturation point for digital and social media in the developed world. While one used to have to purposely seek information out of curiosity or need, it is now difficult to shield oneself from information—both useful and useless—or to limit your own sharing of information. Though curiosity is invaluable, the ability to disconnect is of equal importance. The unending onslaught of information (as best explored by Andrew Sullivan in a piece for New York Magazine) is clearly detrimental to our mental health.

We may not ever regain the ability to unplug. If, as has been suggested, this inability is  contributing to growing rates of mental illness and depression, it’s hard to see how things will improve. It is worth noting that the ability to dedicate hours to social media, or even to afford access, is not ubiquitous. Yet, with 1.86 billion active Facebook users as of 2016, the phenomenon affects enough of the world (with thousands more each day) to be considered on a broad scale.

So, as the older generation looks at connectivity and the integration of the digital with skepticism and excitement, the younger generation will grow up with an unbreakable umbilical cord. The solution—if there is one—will probably rely on rejection. Hipsters dusting off turntables and Polaroids won’t provide a solution; but restoring the balance of connection and analog moments will likely rely on a similar nostalgia.


Christopher Sacco is opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at christopher.sacco@uconn.edu. He tweets @ChrisPSacco.