by Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
Truth and myths about emotional contagion and social media appear frequently on the Internet. Emotional contagion in social media occurs when an emotional state or mood, such as happiness or sadness, can be spread unknowingly between people through reading posts, tweets, blogs, and so forth. Warnings appear online about the effects of social media on mental health.
The upcoming political season, for example, is a potential source for emotional contagion. Social media posts, memes, and articles about the negatives of each candidate can lead to mixed emotions. Watching ads focusing on the negative behaviors candidates display or their political agendas can increase feelings of sadness, anger, or apathy. High conflict topics like guns, civil/gay rights, and taxes can stir opposing viewpoints and irritation or even rage. Usually supportive friends may voice different opinions. The awareness of trigger topics can minimize emotional contagion.
How can social workers discern the truth about social media’s effects of emotional contagion on their clients to increase treatment efficacy? Understanding society’s use of social media is a start.
The Internet provides a means of connection for people across generations, ethnicities, and incomes. According to Pew Research Center, more than 91% of teenagers use smartphones at least daily, with 21% identifying their use as “almost constantly.” African American and Hispanic teenagers report their Internet usage as 11-13% higher than that of their Caucasian counterparts.
The advancing technologies linking social media, computers, and smart phones make usage increasingly easier for every age. Of those using social media sites, 52% of adults and 71% of teens manage two or more social media accounts. Once seniors integrate technology use into their lives, 71% go online daily, with 31% specifically using Facebook. Socioeconomic level affects every category of social media users. As income increases, so does the use of multiple social media platforms. Keeping updated on these trends will help social workers ask meaningful questions in an assessment interview.
Initial interview questions provide identification of emotions and behavior causing distress in an individual. Emotional contagion through social media is only one aspect of assessment, but an important one. Adults utilize Facebook to a greater extent. Teenagers will explore multiple new and existing platforms for socializing. These networking sites may present different risks by population.
An overt example of negativity through social media occurs when an individual experiences flaming, bullying, shaming, or negative responses to his or her posts. A less clear connection to mood may result from more innocuous experiences of reading others being abused or watching angry or depressed people on their YouTube stations. Negative social media behavior in any form can propagate feelings of depression and alienation.
Emotional contagion involving suicidal ideation and behavior is a well-researched phenomenon. Early detection can provide technology-based interventions applicable to client stability.
A key aspect of exploring social media behavior is through the development of a safe therapeutic relationship. This trusting relationship allows clients permission to share their online activities. Begin by educating the client about emotional contagion and social media use. Clients can learn to identify their feelings associated with online browsing.
Detection can be guided directly or indirectly. In-session exploration may provide a client with instant examination of comments and their connection to thoughts or feelings. Homework sheets can be created using scales or rubrics to continue the awareness process outside of therapy. Through this window, an assessment of positive and negative trends can be interpreted. Clients aware of the consequences social media can generate may work toward a shift in their thoughts, actions, and feelings.
Once a client associates negative feelings with social media use, the options for improvement are vast. Therapeutic interventions can include role playing responses to negativity, changing “likes” of Facebook pages to a positive centered focus, choosing to “unfollow” negative people, or creating new encouraging profiles on their favorite sites. Client empowerment can begin with forming personal social media boundaries or strategies. Help clients to form their own solutions for social media dilemmas. Proactive limits may include not posting about intimate struggles, answering all posts in a constructive manner, or only viewing positive sites when feeling down.
Clients actively involved in technology pursuits will engage more with digital options. Apps can be downloaded on smartphones and tablets to track moods and behaviors or offering meditation and visualization options for positive change. Collection sites, like Pinterest, can be used to collect pictures, memes, or information for encouragement when negative feelings become overwhelming. Louise Hay, an affirmation author, provides daily quotes for those who “like” her Facebook page. Such resources will not “fix” depression, but they will provide alternative tools, adding to the therapeutic process of healing.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is a lecturer at Dominican University. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog, Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice, to increase awareness about technology’s uses.