Now it's official. Facebook can make you mad in more ways than one

May 8, 2013

Scientists working at Tel Aviv University in Israel have found causal evidence directly linking "psychotic episodes" suffered by some mentally-ill hospital patients to addiction to, and delusions brought on by, the over-use of social networking sites. Most of the episodes were found to be connected to mania resulting from the use and abuse of virtual relationships initiated and maintained via Facebook and its ilk.

The Tel Aviv team are keen to point out that although the participants in the research had reported and been treated for problems either associated with or brought on by social isolation and loneliness, none of those who volunteered to be research subjects had a history of drug or alcohol abuse or any prior incidence or indication of psychosis.

It seems pretty self-evident that lonely individuals who have difficulty socialising in real-world situations find it easier to nurture virtual relationships via social network websites and then suffer disproportionately more than the average individual when a virtual relationship breaks down and is terminated resulting in feelings of betrayal, hurt and worthlessness. But the study brings academic rigour to the subject.

The study, reported in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, was led by D. Uri Nitzan of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and the Shalvata Mental Health Care Centre who commented, "As internet access becomes increasingly widespread, so do related psychopathologies. Computer communications such as Facebook and chat groups are an important part of this story."

The study examines in detail the behaviour and mental well-being of three of Dr Nitzan's patients and discovered direct links between psychotic episodes and the patient's use of Internet, and Facebook.

The subjects were lonely and vulnerable to varying extents and found comfort in virtual relationships that became more and more intense the longer they lasted. At first they were generally positive but, over time, descended into mania occasioning perceived feelings of betrayal and resulting in obsession, cyber-stalking and invasions of privacy.

Dr Nitzan again: "The patients shared some crucial characteristics, including loneliness or vulnerability due to the loss of or separation from a loved one, relative inexperience with technology but [they had] no prior history of psychosis or substance abuse. In each case, a connection was found between the gradual development and exacerbation of psychotic symptoms, including delusions, anxiety, confusion, and intensified use of computer communications."

The report also embellishes another self-evident truth; that while the Internet is "a free and liberal space that many individuals use on a daily basis and which is a growing part of a normal social life" (Well, up to a point, Lord Copper) some people can be harmed by social networking sites, especially those that attract "the lonely or vulnerable in their day-to-day lives or act as a platform for cyber-bullying and other predatory behaviour."

Elsewhere, other academic research, in this case carried out at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, found that people of low educational attainment and those with low incomes tend to spend more time on Facebook and other social networking sites than do the better educated and better paid. The study adds that poorer people who spend hours on end on social networking sites tend to be less happy and contented than wealthier and better educated users.

Well, who'd have thought it? This seems to be to be a chicken and egg situation- i.e. which came first the lack of money and time to spare or Internet addiction?

In the Gothenburg research, 85 per cent of Facebook users surveyed said they go to the social networking site on a daily basis and 26 per cent admitted to feeling "uneasy" if they failed to log in on a regular basis.

Fortunately, however, Dr.Nitzan says that all patients included in the Tel Aviv research who willingly sought out treatment on their own were able to make "a full recovery with proper treatment and care". However, nothing is said of any subjects who may not have "willingly" sought treatment on their own behalf".

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