Youths who spend a lot of time on social media sites are at risk of "Facebook depression," a group of doctors say.
Though the symptoms and the resulting harmful behavior may be similar to "offline depression," the American Academy of Pediatrics has proposed Facebook depression as a new phenomenon.
The AAP issued a new clinical report, "The Impact of Social Media Use on Children, Adolescents and Families," published online on Monday, detailing both the negative and positive effects of social media use on youth and families.
The report points out that the number of preadolescents and adolescents using such sites as Facebook and MySpace has increased dramatically during the last five years.
Facebook currently has more than 500 million active users. According to ComScore, a firm that measures Internet traffic, the share of visitors to Facebook under 18 years of age increased over the past year to 11.1 percent.
A 2009 Common Sense Media poll revealed that 22 percent of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day.
Gwenn O'Keeffe, MD, FAAP, co-author of the clinical report, says social media, rather than face-to-face interaction, is the primary way some teens and tweens interact socially.
"A large part of this generation's social and emotional development is occurring while on the Internet and on cell phones," she stated in the report.
"Facebook is where all the teens are hanging out now. It's their corner store," O'Keeffe illustrated, according to The Associated Press.
While the benefits of social media participation include staying connected with friends and family, making new friends, community engagement, and enhancement of creativity, the AAP report cautions that using the online sites becomes a risk to youths more often than most adults realize.
Among the potential harms are cyberbullying, social anxiety, severe isolation, and now what doctors are identifying as Facebook depression.
"Acceptance by and contact with peers is an important element of adolescent life. The intensity of the online world is thought to be a factor that may trigger depression in some adolescents," the report points out.
The pressure to feel accepted isn't just felt among teens either. Interestingly, research by Telstra released last month found that 18- to 30-year-olds use Facebook in ways to help them appear cooler.
Twenty-two percent said they use the Facebook Places "check-in" feature to look cool, 10 percent use the feature to fit in with all the cool people who are doing it, and 10 percent use it to make others jealous.
One-third of the respondents admitted to feeling jealous or left out when they see their friends check-in on Facebook Places.
Facebook offers other unique features that could make it particularly tough for kids trying to fit in.
According to O'Keeffe, the number of Facebook friends, status updates and photos of happy people are some of the factors that could contribute to depression.
It can be more painful than sitting alone in a school cafeteria, O'Keeffe said, as reported by AP.
For Rhett Smith, a therapist and part-time pastor to youth and families, the latest AAP report confirms what he and many others have been feeling.
"One of the glaring paradoxes in my use of technology/social media, is that it has both the ability to make me feel connected and intimate with others, while at the same time feeling isolated, alienated and lonely," he said in an earlier blog post.
"Has all the technology relationally disconnected us in a sense, replacing the processes (befriending, getting to know each other, sharing life, etc.), where instead we just value the end results (number of followers, blog traffic, etc.)?"
The AAP warns that youths who do suffer from Facebook depression could turn to risky Internet sites for help – sites that promote substance abuse, unsafe sexual practices, or aggressive or self-destructive behaviors.
"Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children's online world – and comfortably parent in that world," O'Keeffe advised.
Moreover, parents need to recognize the reality of an increasingly digital world that their children are growing up in.
"Look at childhood as it is today. Help really see them as today's kids, not try to force them into a mold of yesterday's kids," she added.