The concept of “digital depression” has been in the media for some time now, prompting some people—including lawyers—to wonder what this condition is and whether they have it themselves. If these questions have crossed your mind, ask yourself the following:
- Do you spend so much time on social media that it interferes with your family life and work?
- Do you ever find yourself monitoring other lawyers’ successes online and comparing yourself to them?
- Do you focus your online searches on lawyers who seem better off than you? Are they wealthier? More successful?
- Do you find yourself easily stressed out or depressed because you do not feel that you are at the level of other lawyers you follow online?
Online social media platforms allow individuals to communicate and interact with others virtually. The Pew Research Center has identified the most popular social media platforms to be Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and most individuals use these social media applications daily (Social Media Fact Sheet). In recent years, there has been an increased concern regarding the maladaptive behaviors associated with social media use, which has led to a rise in empirical studies assessing social media use and its effect on individuals. Much of this research has focused on social media behaviors, such as addiction and social comparisons, and the relationship between social media and mental health, including depression and anxiety.
In addition to personal social media use, there is an increasing expectation to maintain a professional online presence, which can exacerbate maladaptive social media behaviors among lawyers. These maladaptive social media behaviors can lead to professional burnout, particularly in professions such as the law with higher rates of perfectionism and psychological distress. This article will highlight the current scientific understanding on social media use, focusing on maladaptive behaviors and their relationship with poor mental health and well-being, and how it relates specifically to lawyers. (View a full list of the studies referenced in this article.)
Social Media Addiction
Although not currently included as a diagnosis in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), “social media addiction” is a growing issue of concern among the general public, as well as among scholars who study technology. Theory in this area began with the exploration of Internet addiction, which involves computer addiction, information overload, net compulsions, cybersexual addiction, and cyberrelationship addiction. The use of social media has increased dramatically. For instance, 79 percent of all adults online now use Facebook (Shannon Greenwood, Andrew Perrin, and Maeve Duggan, Pew Research Social Media Update 2016, Pew Research Center, November 2016). As a result, scholars have begun to specifically target social media addiction, coining terms such as “social network site addiction” and “Facebook addiction.”
Experts might adopt slightly different terms, but most agree that social media addiction encompasses three main attributes:
- being excessively concerned about social media;
- feeling a strong motivation to use social media; and
- allocating so much time to social media that it interferes with other parts of life, including social events, school or work, close connections with others, and general well-being.
Furthermore, those addicted to social media will fervently continue their compulsive use, even if it results in undesirable consequences, such as lack of sleep or interpersonal conflicts.
What are the individual factors that influence social media addiction? Researchers have taken different approaches to studying social media addiction, and many have focused on demographic, communication, and psychological factors. Both younger age and female gender are factors associated with a higher likelihood of social media addiction. Individuals who exhibit a greater intensity of use of social media, a feature that includes the fear of missing out, exhibit a greater likelihood of social media addiction. Furthermore, individuals with a greater need for belongingness and a propensity to compare themselves to others are also more likely to develop social media addiction. Psychological factors associated with social media addiction include high stress, low empathic concern, low self-esteem, low levels of conscientiousness, and increased depressive symptoms. Greater empathic concern and conscientiousness may provide protection against the development of social media addiction. Furthermore, efforts to reduce the intensity of use, to reduce online social comparisons, and to reduce general stress and depressive symptoms, along with efforts to improve self-esteem, may enhance resiliency to social media addiction.
Social Comparisons on Social Media
Social comparison theory suggests that individuals are compelled to assess themselves by comparing themselves with others. We get a sense of our abilities and self-worth from comparing ourselves to those who are better than us, through upward comparison, as well as those who are worse than us, through downward comparison. Scholars have used social comparison theory to explain how certain media, including television and social media, influence behaviors.
The association between social media addiction and social comparisons can be explained by the milieu in which social media operates. Such platforms lend themselves to be heavily based on self-presentation and the responses or appraisals from others. In order to be perceived favorably by others, users minimize their negative traits or life events while enhancing their positive aspects. Because of technology’s asynchronous nature and minimization of nonverbal cues, social media users can strategically craft their online persona, optimizing their online self through careful impression management.
Positive self-presentation is becoming increasingly important, as working individuals connect with current and prospective colleagues via social media. Research suggests that this positivity bias in online content may unduly influence our evaluation of others’ socially desirable traits, leading us to rank someone as more popular or successful based on their carefully curated social media presence, as opposed to information gleaned about someone from other sources, such as real-life interactions. This emphasis on positive self-presentation may be a sign of perfectionism, an unhealthy level of which has been connected to professional burnout. For those who strive to achieve perfection, unfavorable or upward off-line social comparisons may foster maladaptive feelings and behaviors, including envy, working to the point of exhaustion, and excessive competitive behavior in the workplace.
Other findings suggest that some individuals displaying narcissistic characteristics may use social media platforms as a strategy for exhibiting dominance, often creating an environment rooted in competition and exhibition of personal achievements. Healthy workplace environments providing team support and team building have been found to be a moderating factor between unhealthy perfectionism and burnout in the workplace. Findings further reveal that having many workplace friendships allows for healthy perfectionism and innovative behaviors without high threats of workplace burnout.
The Relationship Between Social Media and Depression
The relationship between social media and depression is both complex and bidirectional, and this association may be influenced by biological, behavioral, psychological, and social factors. Moreover, depending on the given circumstances for any individual, social media can either buffer or hinder mental health. While significant associations between specific social media behaviors and depressive symptoms can be acknowledged, it is vital to recognize that causality cannot be implied. It is also important to consider the participant population in which various studies were conducted; many studies focus on adolescents and college students, whereas fewer have examined social media behaviors in adult populations.
Many studies on mental health have examined general social media factors, such as the number of friends/followers on a given platform, the amount of time an individual spends daily on social media, and the active versus passive use of social media. Most studies have not found a relationship between increased depressive symptoms and general Facebook behaviors, including the amount of time each day spent on Facebook, the number of Facebook friends, the number of selfies posted, the frequency of posting positive updates, the number of “likes,” or peer interaction. However, some social media behaviors have been found to be associated with users who meet the criteria for major depressive disorder (MDD).
The relationship between upward social comparisons and depressive symptoms has been evaluated in several studies. The propensity to compare oneself to others online often mirrors one’s off-line social comparison behaviors, and depressive symptoms that are associated with online social comparisons may also be associated with off-line behaviors.
In addition to social media addiction and social comparisons, other factors related to social media use have been found to be associated with depressive symptoms, including the number of social media platforms, the occurrence of negative social media experiences, and neuroticism (a personality trait for which individuals exhibit nervousness, insecurity, and negative affectivity). One study even found that individuals who preferred Twitter over Facebook were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms compared to those who preferred Instagram over Facebook (Antoine Jeri-Yabar et al., “Association Between Social Media Use (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook) and Depressive Symptoms: Are Twitter Users at Higher Risk?, International Journal of Social Psychology, 2019 (65:1), 14–19).
Although much of the research has focused on how maladaptive social media behaviors affect depressive symptoms, a few studies have highlighted how adaptive social media behaviors—such as online and off-line social support—may be a buffer to depression.
Psychological Distress among Lawyers
Research focused on lawyers shows that psychological distress is a primary factor related to poor occupational outcomes, including general burnout. In fact, studies have shown that the risk of developing depression is twice as high for lawyers as compared to those in the general population (Andrew H. Benjamin, Bruce Sales, and Elaine Darling, “The Prevalence of Depression, Alcohol Abuse and Cocaine Abuse among United States Lawyers,” International Journal of Law and Psychiatry, 1990 (13), at 233–246; Susan Swaim Daicoff, Lawyer, Know Thyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2004). To date, factors found to influence psychological distress in lawyers have included the stress of law school, personality traits such as pessimism and perfectionism, and poor working conditions, including work-life conflict and low job control. Social support is also associated with workplace outcomes for lawyers. For instance, studies have shown that lawyers who reported a lack of social support or found their colleagues to be unsupportive also reported negative occupational outcomes, whereas those with mentors who provided quality guidance were more likely to report better job satisfaction. If this type of support is not available, some may turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms. Alcohol use among lawyers has been found to be significantly higher than those in other professions, such that 70 percent of lawyers developed alcohol-related issues throughout the course of their life (Connie J.A. Beck et al., “Lawyers Distress: Alcohol-Related Problems and Other Psychological Concerns among a Sample of Practicing Lawyers,” Journal of Law and Health, 1996 (10), at 1–60). Recent studies have found links between alcohol use and maladaptive social media behaviors, which have been linked to depression. Therefore, knowing that aspects of social media are associated with increased depressive symptoms, it is important for lawyers to take additional precautions to reduce the negative psychological effects associated with social media use.
Social media is a complex technology that provides highly individualized experiences for users, meaning that no two people have the same encounter on social media. Factors that influence the social media experiences include the attributes of the specific social media platforms used, the number of platforms frequented, the actions performed on the platform (e.g., observing, posting, etc.), and the individuals and groups that are friended/followed. The recent influx of research on social media behaviors related to general well-being has identified a few key factors, such as social media addiction and upward social comparisons, that appear to be strongly related to psychological distress. From an occupational standpoint, these maladaptive social media behaviors can lead to professional burnout, particularly in certain professions with higher rates of perfectionism and psychological distress.
In this time when a digital presence is typical and expected, it is important to proactively assess your own social media behaviors and make appropriate adjustments to protect against negative psychological impacts. If social media interferes with your daily activities and your relationships with others, and you find yourself focusing more on others whom you determine to be “better off” than yourself, it is important to take proactive measures to change these behaviors to improve your mental health. One step would be to reduce the constant access to social media by limiting your time spent on the various platforms or by removing the applications from your smartphone but leaving them accessible from a computer. Also, it may be advantageous to take a close inventory of your connections and consider unfriending/unfollowing individuals or groups that cause increased upward social comparisons. It is also recommended that you follow your company/organization on social media. Interacting with the organization’s social media page helps link employees to individuals outside their social sphere and enhances employees’ connections to the larger organization. Making minor adjustments in social media use may reduce the likelihood of social media addiction and upward social comparisons, thereby improving overall well-being.
Published in GPSolo magazine, Volume 36, Number 6, November/December 2019. © 2019 by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association or the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division.