'Facebook Depression': Rare but Serious Side Effect of Social Networking

Many teens enjoy keeping in touch with their friends on social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, but using such sites to excess can be unhealthy and has even been linked to depression, researchers say.

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics describes a new phenomenon known as "Facebook depression," in which children and teenagers spend an inordinate amount of time on social networking sites, then develop symptoms of depression.

The phenomenon is not common, and most children benefit from the site because they are able to maintain ties with friends and feel a connection with their community, said Scott Campbell, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan.

But heavy use of  Facebook, as well as other risks of the online world such as cyberbullying and sexting, can have serious consequences, so it's critical for parents to stay involved in their children's lives.

"As kids have increasingly open lines of communication with their peers online, it is extremely important that parents keep the lines of communication with their kids just as open so they can have a sense of what is going on in their social lives ... both online and offline," Campbell said.

Facebook's dark side

Relationships with friends become critical in adolescent years. While Facebook allows teens to engage with friends, that interaction could turn to envy, said Dr. Michael Brody, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Silver Springs, Md., who was involved with the AAP report.

"Kids become are very competitive, and kids want to be chosen," Brody said.

 Facebook allows adolescents to see their friends' successes, as well as the number of friendships those friends have. "It sets up a competitive thing where kids might feel less than they are because their friends seem to be having a better time than they are," Brody said. "I think the idea of envy and jealousy becomes very magnified through this medium."

However, it's less clear whether Facebook itself leads to depression, or whether certain adolescents who are already depressed are prone to spending too much time online, Brody said.

"Like anything else in life, too much time on Facebook — or the Internet in general, for that matter — can be a bad thing." Campbell said. "For the most part, depression and loneliness are associated with those extremely heavy users of the Internet who let the amount of time they spend online interfere with their offline connections."

Balanced life

One way to potentially prevent children from entering this type of depression is to make sure they engage in a variety of activities, Brody said.

"I think kids who have a balanced life, who do schoolwork, who do after-school activities, who are in teams, who are in clubs, who do community service have a much lesser chance of becoming depressed.

"I would be worried as a parent if all my kid was doing was sitting in their room on the computer with Facebook," Brody said.

Pass it on: Although it's uncommon, spending too much time online and on social networking sites such as Facebook is associated with depression.

Samantha Murphy, staff writer for TechNewsDaily, a sister site to MyHealthNewsDaily, contributed reporting. Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.