Facebook and other social networking platforms affect relationships and mental health in an extreme way, according to M.I.T. Professor Sherry Turkle, and author of the book “Alone Together.”
The term “friend” has been redefined by social networks, according to Turkle. Facebook “friend” has a different definition than the traditional sense because many users don’t know their “friend” on Facebook as well as they would know their real-life friends. These online friendships are becoming more comfortable among users, Turkle said in her book.
“(Social networking ‘friends’) can provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, without the demands of intimacy,” Turkle said in an interview with the American Psychological Association.
BYU psychologist and assistant clinical professor Ben Salazar, a psychologist at Brigham Young University, explained that the majority of student interactions occur online. This means fewer students are having deeper, face-to-face connections, which are a vital part of mental health. People need to feel supported and validated by one another in relationships, Salazar said.
“The defining characteristic of depression is withdrawal from social relations,” he said. “Students who rely more and more on social media relationships are going to have a different impact on their sense of belonging, self-esteem and confidence than if they were to go out with friends and do something in person.”
Salazar said feelings of isolation among students are increasing because social networking usage is increasing. Students are spending more time alone in their rooms with the illusion of being connected to hundreds of people.
“Students come in saying, ‘I just feel so incredibly lonely,’ and it’s an interesting phenomenon because they are surrounded by 30,000 people that are their age and in their same stage of life every day,” Salazar said.
Isolation is not the only mental health effect of social networking; comparison can also contribute to feelings of inadequacy and depression among social media users, Salazar said. This occurs because social media is not the most authentic exhibit of someone’s life.
“People tend to only highlight the really great things in their life. It can create a bias where as observers we think it’s a (genuine) representative of other people’s lives when, in reality, it’s one sided,” Salazar said.
BYU student Katie Heilner said that prior to her 18-month Latter-day Saint mission, she felt that social networking sites like Facebook were used purely as a way to connect. Now, social networking sites like Instagram and Twitter are more popular, and users often have different motives, she said.
“I noticed when I got back from my mission that a lot of people are trying to get famous via social media. Everyone just wants to build his or her ‘fan base,'” Heilner said. “People only share their best moments on social media, and it’s easy to start feeling pretty small when you spend a lot of time on it.”
Salazar suggested combatting feelings of comparison, isolation and depression by making more real-life connections in addition to social network connections, or inviting social network friends to talk face to face to create deeper connections.
“Social media is not a bad thing,” Salazar said. “But it should be used in moderation.”