There are people who choose not to engage on social media, but generally speaking, at least 80% of people who are connected to the internet use at least one social media platform. Facebook is the most popular with 68% of all U.S. adults who use it, followed by Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn and Twitter. There are good aspects like being able to keep in touch with people and there are bad aspects like the proliferation of cyber bullying. How social media use specifically affects those with mental health problems is still being studied. One recent study looked at the positive and negative facets of social media use in those with bipolar disorder.

Previous studies have found that people with bipolar disorder use social media differently than our healthy counterparts, even when when our mood is stable. For example, people with bipolar disorder tend to have fewer Facebook friends. A new study, led by Mark Matthews of Cornell University, looked at 84 completed surveys of technology use by those with bipolar disorder to find answers to three major questions:

  1. How do participants make use of technology, including ownership and usage frequency?
  2. How do symptoms of bipolar disorder manifest through patterns of technology use?
  3. What is the nature of the relationship between technology use and bipolar disorder?

Here is what they found:

The Stats:

  • 71% of participants were enthusiastic about the use of technology.
  • 83% regularly use a smartphone.
  • 85% used email, texting or Facebook regularly throughout the day.
  • The average number of times participants checked Facebook was 24.
  • 59% reported that their social media usage changed during episodes. For example, use decreased during depression while use increased during mania.

The Bad:

  • Excessive use is common among those with bipolar disorder, especially at night or during an episode.
  • Screen time just prior to going to bed and throughout the night can negatively affect sleep, which can trigger symptoms.
  • Manic episodes led to excessive online shopping or gambling and higher use of pornography or sexting.
  • Those in depressive episodes reported zombie-like bingeing of streaming media like Netflix or Hulu.
  • During depressive episodes, people became less active and more socially isolated.
  • Excessive use of social media sometimes led to triggers like social distress.
  • Depressive episodes were worsened by feelings of anxiety, jealousy and loneliness.
  • Using the internet to meet new people and relieve social isolation led to increased depressive symptoms.

The Good:

  • 41% of participants were able to notice mood shifts by how the patterns of their social media use differed from their normal use, especially late at night or during manic episodes.
  • Use of technology allowed participants to find useful information about bipolar disorder.
  • Social media provides a support system that can help during difficult times and contribute to overall wellbeing.
  • There are a number of apps and self-tracking assistants available for use to help track and detect symptoms and triggers.
  • Connecting with others who also suffer from mental health problems helped participants cope with with depression and reduced stigma.
  • People were able to use their own content as encouragement by looking back on happier times.
  • Connecting with family and friends helped relieve depressive symptoms.

Apparently, there is what the researchers referred to as a double-edged sword with technology and social media use in those with bipolar disorder. Its important for those with the disorder to track their behavior (on and offline) in order to identify triggers and symptoms. Fortunately, the use of technology may be able to help.

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