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7 February 2013

Facebook Status Updates Can Signal Depression in Students

Keywords: health, peers, North America, computer, focus groups, happiness, internet, media, mobile, mobile phone, social media, technology, young adults, youth communication,

For many young people Facebook is by far the most used place to express feelings, and emotions. In their status updates, some refer to feelings of depression, anxiety and even suicide. These so-called ‘mental health status updates’ are the focus of a study in a special issue of Mental Health Nursing. This study shows that most young people take mental health updates from Facebook friends seriously. However, they only undertake action (like contacting their friend) when the poster is one of their closest friends.

Take aways

  • Most students take mental health status updates that refer to depression and anxiety from Facebook friends seriously. They see it as a severe sign of mental illness and as a call for help and support. 
  • However, they only undertake action (e.g., contact their friend by email or phone) when the person who posted the update is one of their closest friends. 
  • Social network sites such as Facebook, create opportunities for peer interventions. Intervention developers should inform users of social network sites about the steps they must take, when they see concerning status updates. 

Study information

  • The question?

    How do students feel about their friends’ mental health status updates on Facebook, and how do they respond to that?

  • Who?

    34 students between the ages of 18 and 23 (74% women, 100% had Facebook profiles, and the average length of having a Facebook profile was almost four years)

  • Where?

    Wisconsin-Madison, United States

  • How?

    Seven focus groups were held with students in different campus locations, such as libraries and classrooms. Two focus groups were mixed gender. Groups consisted of three to six participants, and lasted between 45 and 60 minutes. Questions about personal experiences with seeing a friend’s mental health status update, and best ways to contact these friends were answered. Gender differences were also talked about. 

Facts and findings

  • Most of the students at least once saw a status update on a friend’s Facebook profile that indicated mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety. 
  • Those updates were mostly related to school and relationships or death of friends or family and included lyrics or actual emotion words, such as depressed
  • The majority of the students took mental health status updates on Facebook serious and viewed it as a sign of mental illness and as a call for help and support. 
  • However, some took the updates less seriously, and interpreted them more as attention-seeking behavior or jokes. 
  • Students felt like men and women were posting the same amount of mental health updates on Facebook.
  • Responses to the mental health updates from friends mostly depended on the level of closeness of the friendship: 
    • When a close friend posted something about his or her mental status, students felt like contacting that person (i.e., calling, sending an e-mail, or talking to them in person) to check on how he or she is doing. 
    • When a more distant friend posted something about his or her mental status, students felt less comfortable contacting that person. Talking to a mutual friend of family member were than seen as a better alternative. When the updates suggested that the distant friend was at risk, they would talk to the police, or campus counselor.