Pediatrics group misdiagnoses ‘Facebook Depression’

A clinical report released on Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics makes the claim that “researchers have proposed a new condition called ‘Facebook depression.” It develops, says the report, “when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.” Trouble is, it’s a made-up condition which, despite claims to the contrary, is not backed up by any research.

That catchy new condition got the report a lot of media attention but, after examining all of the report’s related references and speaking with the report’s lead author and the lead author of one of the research studies that this claim is based on, I’ve concluded that the diagnosis of Facebook depression is a nonexistent condition. Of course, people can become depressed when they encounter depressing content on Facebook, but that would be true in any venue. Why create conditions like school depression, playground depression or home depression?

The section on Facebook depression is just one paragraph in an otherwise excellent report with some positive comments on social networking and some solid advice to parents. It’s too bad that it’s the part of the report that got the most attention.

Diagnosis based on irrelevant data

In a podcast interview for CNET and CBS News, co-author Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe told me that the diagnosis was based partially on a study by Professor Joanne Davila from Stony Brook University. But when I spoke with Dr. Davila, she emphatically insisted that her study had nothing to do with Facebook depression. Instead it focused on “whether depression in adolescents predicts risky sexual activity and risky romantic relationships.” She said that she has conducted as-yet-unpublished research on the impact of social media and depression and has concluded that people get depressed on Facebook when they see disturbing (depressing) content just as they would in any other venue.

The rest of the evidence for this so-called condition is equally irrelevant. Most of the citations are news reports. One citation from a student newspaper, is written by a college freshman linguistics student who simply observed that 18.2% of the students at her college are depressed and therefore “Out of every 100 (Facebook) friends you have, 18 to 19 of them probably are depressed.” This really proves a lot. Another citation is a blog post from ReadWriteWeb, that ends with the author’s confession “The headline ‘Facebook Depression’ is meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek and it should not be taken literally to mean that using Facebook causes depression.” And the academic studies cited have nothing to do with the issue of Facebook depression. Dr. O’Keeffe said that the “Facebook depression” was also based on clinical observations, but they were not documented.

The study doesn’t cite any conflicting research, including a very relevant recent study from Cornell University that showed that Facebook can boost young people’s self-esteem.

In an interview, Dr. O’Keefe defended her conclusion, but also admitted that this so-called condition “affects a small group of kids.” She also said that “Facebook is really a magnifier. You’re not going to catch something on Facebook, but Facebook tends to amplify any of our insecurities or anything we’re feeling good about.” Unfortunately, these qualifiers weren’t included in the clinical report.

Dr. John M., Grohol, Founder & Editor-in-Chief of PsychCentral.com posted an even more scathing analysis of the report, calling it “shoddy research” that doesn’t “differentiate between correlation and causation.”

Anne Collier, my co-director at ConnectSafely.org also weighed in. While labeling the AAP report as “research-challenged,” she did agree that “when pediatricians are asking their patients how things are going in their lives, they should be asking about how they’re going on cellphones, on Xbox Live, and on Facebook because what’s going on in those “places” is part of their everyday socializing.”

You’ll find a lot more detail and recorded interviews with Dr. O’Keefe and Dr. Davila in my CNET post, Is there really ‘Facebook depression.

Disclosure: Facebook is one of several companies that provides financial support for ConnectSafely.org, a non-profit Internet safety organization where I serve as co-director.

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