The coronavirus pandemic has caused many of us to shift our lives to digital tech platforms, with the likes of Zoom, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter all experiencing strong growth as much of the world’s population isolates itself.
At the same time, rates of depression and other mental health issues have skyrocketed in countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. In July, a Mental Health America study found that “loneliness and isolation” is most commonly cited as the cause of depression and anxiety in the United States (in 74% and 65% of cases, respectively).
These two trends are related. As more people isolate at home, more digital platforms witness a surge in users and customers. Many of us may be attempting to soften our feelings of loneliness, isolation and anxiety by migrating to the internet, yet this migration clearly isn’t doing a very good job of maintaining our collective mental health. While this may be an obvious statement to make, it therefore seems that digital technology and social media really aren’t an adequate substitute for real life.
By “real life,” I mean in-person human contact and face-to-face socialising, which has been shown in research to significantly reduce the risk of depression. In one highly cited 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers from the Oregon Health & Science University found that people who have face-to-face social contact only “every few months or less” had almost double the risk of depression (as compared to people who meet with friends or relatives at least three times per week).
Interestingly, the same paper found that contact via telephone or email had basically no effect on levels of depression. Its authors wrote, “Telephone contact was the most‐common mode of social contact, but rates of depressive symptoms remained static across varying levels of telephone contact, and variable rates of depressive symptoms across levels of written or e‐mail contact prevent conclusions about it having an effect.”
Such findings have been corroborated by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the United Kingdom, figures published in mid-August by the Office for National Statistics revealed that rates of depression had “almost doubled” during the pandemic. 19.2% of British adults reported either moderate or severe depression in June, as opposed to 9.7% before any lockdowns were imposed (between July 2019 and March 2020).
In the United States, an August survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the “prevalence of symptoms of anxiety disorder was approximately three times” higher in June than it had been in the second quarter of 2019, rising from 8.1% of American adults to 25.5%. Even more worryingly, symptoms of depression were roughly four times higher than those reported in Q2 2019, having risen from 6.5% to 24.3%.
Such alarming spikes in mental health problems have occurred in the context of growing use of social media and other digital platforms. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, Facebook hit a record three billion monthly active users at the end of April (across its family of platforms), while Twitter also reported a big 34% jump in daily active users in Q2 2020.
More of us are on social media and other digital platforms as we try to avoid spreading or catching the coronavirus. However, judging by recent spikes in depression and anxiety, our use of social media does little or nothing to answer our deeply felt need for face-to-face, meaningful human contact.
Admittedly, it may be going too far to expect Facebook, Twitter or any other platform to combat the psychological effects of a global pandemic. Many of us may be fearful for our jobs, for our homes, and for our lives, so it may be unrealistic to think that a social network or anything else on the Web can really help with such worries.
Nonetheless, recall that the Mental Health America study cited above found that “loneliness and isolation” was by far the biggest factor in recent spikes in depression and anxiety. It’s not possible unemployment or the coronavirus itself that’s getting most of us down, but rather our inability to socialise and have meaningful contact with other people.
In other words, Facebook and Twitter don’t particularly help us socialise and have meaningful contact with other people. This is what the data would suggest. The ‘connection’ such platforms offer is apparently no substitute for in-person connection, while previous research has suggested that the frequent use of Facebook can even increase symptoms of depression and anxiety.
If social media and digital platforms can’t help much when people are feeling significant “loneliness and isolation,” then an important question emerges: what are they good for, really?
Well, they are great for advertising, obviously. And they do help politicians spread propaganda. Other than that, I’ll leave it for you to decide.