The "Facebook Depression" Controversy

Please note that I have not published any data on "Facebook Depression". As of March 2011, I have a manuscript under review that examines the association between social networking frequency and quality and their association with depressive symptoms. I presented some of these data at the ABCT conference in November 2010:

Davila, J., Hershenberg, R., Feinstein, B., Starr, L. R., & Gorman, K. (November, 2010). Is use of social networking tools associated with depressive symptoms among youth? Paper presented at the 44th annual meeting of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, San Fransisco, CA.

Also note that the following two articles DO NOT include any data on Facebook and depression, regardless of what you may read in the media or in the recent AAP Clinical Report (O'Keeffe et al., 2011, Pediatrics):

Starr, L. R., & Davila, J. (2009). Clarifying co-rumination: Association with internalizing symptoms and romantic involvement among adolescent girls. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 19-37.

Davila, J., Stroud, C. B., Starr, L. R., Ramsay Miller, M., Yoneda, A., & Hershenberg, R. (2009). Romantic and sexual activities, parent-adolescent stress, and depressive symptoms among early adolescent girls. Journal of Adolescence, 32, 909-924.

Please follow these links and listen to the podcasts of my interviews to get accurate information on the "Facebook Depression" controversy:

Article by Larry Magid on CNET, March 29, 2011:

Article and podcast by Larry Magid on CNET

Cut and paste the following into your browser if the above link does not work:

http://news.cnet.com/8301-19518_3-20048148-238.html

Interview with Ron Insana on his radio program "The Insana Quotient", March 29, 2011:

Interview with Ron Insana on his radio show "The Insana Quotient"

Cut and paste the following into your browser if the above link does not work:

http://www.roninsanashow.com/programhighlights?date=20110329

 

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about these issues.

 

Regarding the AAP Clinical Report (O'Keeffe et al., 2011, Pediatrics), Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe maintains the following (quoted from her blog post on PsychCentral, March 30, 2011):

http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/03/28/pediatrics-gets-it-wrong-about-facebook-depression/


“I first noticed the term in widespread use in the mainstream press around 2009 after Dr. Davila’s Stonybrook study came out… She not only gave compelling interviews about this topic when her study came out but has done so as recently as two weeks ago. You can review her interviews yourself on the following links:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/facebook/4405741/Excessive-chatting-on-Facebook-can-lead-to-depression-in-teenage-girls.html

http://miami.cbslocal.com/2011/03/07/study-social-networking-may-leave-teens-depressed/

I invite you to review these interviews. Let me make clear a few things.


First, regarding all of the reports that came out in 2009 – they all said the same exact thing. Why? Because one internet news report picked up on one inaccurately quoted speculation that my colleague Lisa Starr and I made in response to an interviewer’s question. Following this, many other media outlets republished the misquotation and the inaccurate conclusion made by the reporter.


A bit of history… here is the link to the original article that started this all. If you read it you will see that it says NOTHING about social networking and depression:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/11/fashion/11talk.html

Following the publication of that article, we were contacted for the “Telegraph” interview (that Dr. O’Keeffe refers to). Here is an excerpt from the article that includes the inaccurately quoted speculation (in italics) that was made in response to the interviewer’s direct question about how our findings might apply to social networking:

“Psychology professor Dr Joanne Davila and her colleague Lisa Starr, at Stony Brook University in New York, interviewed 83 girls aged around 13 - the age when risk of depression starts to increase. They were contacted again a year later to follow them up. On both occasions they were tested for depressive symptoms and asked about romantic experiences considered normal for early teens, such as being asked out on a date and having been kissed. According to the report published in The Journal of Adolescence, it found higher levels of discussing problems with friends "significantly" linked with higher levels of depression while more romantic experience was linked both to excessive talking and more depressive symptoms.


Dr Davila said: "Texting, instant messaging and social networking make it very easy for adolescents to become even more anxious, which can lead to depression."
She added: "Lots of talking can help if those involved have strong problem-solving skills because it helps them reach a solution and it builds friendships." She said many teenagers have not yet developed effective ways of dealing constructively with their troubles, remarking that parents may need to be aware when they are obsessing about a setback.”


In the “Telegraph” article, what I was quoted (inaccurately) as saying above got translated into the following by the reporter:

“Frequently discussing the same problem can intensify into an unhealthy activity for those who use Facebook and other electronic means to obsess about it, according to the researchers.”


Clearly, it was a mistake to speculate. We were not reporting on actual findings. We were SPECULATING and we clearly articulated that to the reporter. However, the media adopted that inaccurate quote and republished it over and over. I DID NOT continue to provide misinformation to the media. The media report took on a life of its own because of inaccurate, irresponsible reporting. Moreover, Lisa Starr and I emailed as many of the writers and news agencies as possible to correct this mistake, to no avail. We also emailed our colleagues in the field, in line with ethical guidelines, to make sure that our scientific findings were not misreported or misunderstood.


That Dr. O’Keeffe and her co-authors trusted media reports rather than the actual scientific data is concerning. It is common knowledge among scientists that the media often misquotes, or at best selectively reports, things that they find potentially newsworthy. I hope that pediatricians and the public will treat the AAP Pediatrics report, particularly the part of "facebook depression" and others like it with caution.


Regarding my interview with CBS news last month, again that piece included only those parts of a much longer interview that the news editing team found “newsworthy”. Unfortunately, the media is not in the habit of having interviewees review and edit the material that will eventually appear in print, online, or on TV. As such, although I agreed to do that interview in order to clarify what my research has and has not demonstrated, yet again, statements that I made as speculations in response to questions by the interviewer were taken out of context.


Sadly, one message that one could take from all of this is to never interact with the media again. That would be a shame as dissemination of scientific information is critical. Instead, I have learned an important lesson about what and what not to say to the media, regardless of the questions asked. This experience will now make me much more careful so as to make sure that inaccurate information is not disseminated. Indeed,
dissemination of inaccurate information is dangerous and perhaps worse than no dissemination at all.


And when people who are trusted to provide accurate, guiding information to physicians and the public, information that has the potential to shape how the public views key aspects of behavior – when those people rely on the media rather than on science in their reports, then dissemination is clearly more dangerous than it is worth.

The media should not be creating science. The media should be accurately reporting science.


And scholarly journals should be reporting information based on science, not on media reports.