A startling recent increase in depression for adolescents and young adults suggest they are being attacked by something very recent. Researchers point to the rise of social media. Is this just another case of paranoia about new technology?
The Epidemic of Depression
This point was driven home by an epidemic of depression that overcame developing countries as their population abandoned a rural way of life and relocated to cities.
For Americans born a century ago, the chances of suffering any episode of major depression in the lifetime was only about 1 percent. Today, the lifetime incidence is about 20 times greater (1). Depression is also striking at ever-younger ages. One way of winnowing out possible causes of the epidemic of depression is to look for psychological advantages of living on a subsistence farm compared to city life.
When Farmers Were Happy
Despite being otherwise healthier than the general public, contemporary farmers suffer more from anxiety and depression reflecting the economic problems they confront (2). When most Americans lived on farms a century ago, there was almost no depression, however. Why were subsistence farmers so cheerful? Possible reasons range from exercise and contact with the soil to social cohesion. In those days, farmers did a great deal of manual labor and physical activity is a natural anti-depressant (3). Inactivity is a key symptom of depression so physical work directly counteracts the symptom in addition to altering the neurochemical profile of the disease.
Thanks to their high activity level, and a high-fiber diet, subsistence farmers were slender and mostly free of diabetes, heart disease, and the other obesity-related problems that are the bane of modern life.
Those who suffer from depression are at a greater risk of heart disease and both are linked to inflammation (4). Both stress and obesity activate inflammatory processes. Subsistence farmers were mostly free of stress and obesity that aggravate inflammatory conditions. (Of course, life is very different for modern farmers who trade soybean futures from air-conditioned tractors).
Apart from these physiological advantages, and the possibility that physical contact with microbes in the soil inhibits depression (5), most scholars focus on the social and psychological advantages of a subsistence way of life as protective against and depression.
The Social Explanation
Being part of a stable local community protected hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers against depression as opposed to the more anonymous conditions of urban life where social isolation is more likely.
In subsistence communities, families were large and people knew their neighbors well. While such conditions brought their own problems, including a lack of privacy, and vulnerability to malicious gossip, they insured that everyone was socially engaged. They were spared the isolation and alienation of life in a large modern city that increases anxiety and depression.
While their lifestyle was humble, members of subsistence societies were mutually supportive based on kinship, and friendship, networks. This meant volunteering to rebuild a home that was damaged by fire or sharing food with a neighbor whose fields had been flooded destroying the crops. So they were spared much of the economic insecurity that haunts employees in modern societies.
If loneliness, alienation, and insecurity haunt residents of modern cities, they were largely absent from subsistence communities and this can explain the relative absence of depression in simpler societies.
In the contemporary world, we are connected as never before through large electronic networks. Instead of reducing isolation and depression, these networks are thought to aggravate the problem. How?
Technology and Depression
Subsistence farmers were deprived of novel information. That made their lives tedious but may have protected them from depression. Research suggests that exposure to TV increases anxiety and depression as we experience the traumas of other people around the globe or feel inadequate relative to ideals of beauty and success depicted there (6).
Apart from the barrage of upsetting stories, and depictions of unattainable opulence and beauty, there are good reasons for believing that sitting quietly for several hours brings down our mood.
Watching television a lot reduces the time devoted to more active self-directed activities and to social interactions.
Social Media and Depression
If television could act as a depressing factor in people’s lives, what about modern social media that expose us to distant traumas as they are happening and invite us to depict our own lives in photographs and text?
Ascending rates of anxiety and depression in the young suggest point to social media use as a possible depressant. To begin with, we are exposed to celebrity lifestyles that make our own seem drab and second-rate, an effect that was also observed in the early days of television.
People we know well may seem to lead more glamorous and satisfying lives than we do. Of course, these impressions from Instagram, or Facebook, are often illusory. The people who devote the most effort to burnishing their online image can seem very happy while actually being unusually sad.
Social media invite intense social comparison in new ways, such as teenagers competing for Instagram “likes” as an index of social success and popularity.
Perhaps the biggest problem with social media is their unrelenting nature. Whereas a TV was easily switched off, cell phones keep users in the social media loop throughout their waking lives, prompting addictive checking for updates. Of course, systems designers do everything they can to reinforce user engagement rather than user happiness.
1.Bromet, E. et al. (2011). Cross-national epidemiology of DSM-IV major depressive episode. BMC Medicine, 9: 90. accessed at: http://www.biomedcentral.com/1731-7015/9/90
2 Sanne, B. et al. (2004). Farmers are at risk for anxiety and depression: The Hortaland Health Study. Occupational Medicine, 54, 92-100.
3 Strathopoulou, G. et al. (2006). Exercise interventions for mental health: A quantitative and qualitative review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 13, 178-193.
4 Raison, C. L. et al. (2010). Inflammation, sanitation, and consternation. Archives of General Psychiatry, 67, 1211-1224.
5 Lowry, C. A., et al. (2007). Identification of an immu