For adolescents, Facebook and other social media have created an irresistible forum for online sharing and oversharing, so much so that endless mood-of-the-moment updates have inspired a snickering retort on T-shirts and posters: “Face your problems, don’t Facebook them.”
But specialists in adolescent medicine and mental health experts say that dark postings should not be hastily dismissed because they can serve as an early warning system for timely intervention. Whether therapists should engage with patients over Facebook, however, remains a matter of debate.
And parents have their own conundrum: how to distinguish a teenager’s typically melodramatic mutterings — like the “worst day of my life” rants about their “frenemies,” academics or even cafeteria food — from a true emerging crisis.
Last year, researchers examined Facebook profiles of 200 students at the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Some 30 percent posted updates that met the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for a symptom of depression.
Their findings echo research that concluded that 30 to 40% of college students suffer a debilitating depressive episode each year. Yet scarcely 10% seek counselling.
“You can identify adolescents and young adults on Facebook who are showing signs of being at risk, who would benefit from a clinical visit for screening,” said Dr Megan A. Moreno, a principal investigator in the Facebook studies and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Sometimes the warnings are seen in hindsight. Before 15-year-old Amanda Cummings committed suicide by jumping in front of a bus on December 27, her Facebook updates may have revealed her anguish. On December 1, she wrote: “then ill go kill myself, with these pills, this knife, this life has already done half the job.”
Facebook started working with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2007 to report any disturbing content. After Facebook verifies the comment, it sends a link to the prevention lifeline to help the distressed person. In December, Facebook also began sending the links to an online counsellor.
While Facebook’s reporting feature has been criticised by many, other therapists have praised it as a positive step.
At some universities, resident advisers are using Facebook to monitor their charges. Last year, when Lilly Cao, then a junior, was a house fellow at Wisconsin-Madison, she decided to accept Facebook “friend” requests from most of the 56 freshmen on her floor.
She spotted posts about homesickness, academic despair and a menacing ex-boyfriend. Cao said she would never reply on Facebook, preferring instead to talk to students in person. The students were grateful for the conversations, she said. “If they say something alarming on Facebook,” she added, “they know it’s public and they want someone to respond.”
So, you’re low. What next?
While social media updates can offer clues that someone is overwrought, they also raise difficult questions: Who should intervene? When? How?
“Do you hire someone in the university clinic to look at Facebook all day?” Dr Moreno said. “That’s not practical and borders on creepy.” She said a student might be willing to take a concerned call from a parent, or from a professor who could be trained what to look for.
But ethically, should professors or even therapists “friend” a student or patient? (The students monitored by Dr Moreno’s team had given their consent.) Debra Corbett, a therapist in Charlotte, North Carolina, who treats adolescents and young adults, said some clients do “friend” her. But she limits their access to her Facebook profile to maintain the confidentiality of the therapeutic relationship.
Instead, Corbett will address the posts in therapy sessions. One candidate who is depressed, Corbett will say to her: “How did you feel when you posted that? We’re working on you validating yourself. When you put it out there, you have no control about what they’ll say back.” Susan Kidd, who teaches emotionally vulnerable students at a Kentucky high school, follows their Facebook updates, which she calls a “valuable tool” for intervention with those who “may otherwise not have been forthcoming with serious issues.”
At Cornell University, psychologists do not “friend” students. However, they discuss students who may be at risk with counsellors, residence advisors and the police Dr Moreno said she thought it made sense for house fellows at the University of Wisconsin to keep an eye on their students who “friend” them. Students’ immediate friends, she said, should not be expected to shoulder responsibility for intervention.
Tolu Taiwo, a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agreed. “I know someone who wrote that he wanted to kill himself,” she said. “It turned out he probably just wanted attention. But what if it was real? We wouldn’t know.”
In fact, when adolescents bare their souls on Facebook, they risk derision.
Daylina Miller, a recent graduate of the University of South Florida, said that when she poured out her sadness online, some readers responded only with the Facebook “like” or a symbol of thumb’s up. “You feel the same way?” said Miller, puzzled. “Or you like that I’m sad? You’re sadistic?” Some readers, flummoxed by a friend’s misery, remain silent, which inadvertently may be taken as the most hurtful response.
Parents who followed their children’s Facebook posts said they did not always know how to distinguish the drama du jour from silent screams. Often their teenagers felt angry and embarrassed when parents responded on Facebook.
Many parents said they felt embarrassed, too. After reading a grim post, they might raise an alarm, only to be curtly told by their offspring that it was a popular song lyric, a tactic teens use to comment in code, in part to confound snooping parents.
Corbett, the Charlotte therapist, said that when she followed her sons’ Facebook pages, she was cautious. If parents react to every little bad mood, she said, children might be less open on Facebook, assuming that “my parents will freak out.”
Sometimes a Facebook posting can truly be a last-resort cry for help. One recent afternoon while Jackie Wells, who lives near Dayton, Ohio, was waiting for her phone service to be fixed, she went online to check on her daughter, 18, who lives about an hour away. Just 20 minutes earlier, the girl, unable to reach her mother by phone, used her own Facebook page to post to Walls or anyone else who might read it: “I just did something stupid, mom. Help me.”
Wells borrowed a cellphone from her parents and called relatives who lived closer to her daughter. The girl had overdosed on pills. They got her to the hospital in time. “Facebook might be a pain in the neck to keep up with,” Wells said. “But having that extra form of communication saves lives.”