Here are two studies that discuss popular social media sites and depression, substance abuse:

Depressed Pinterest Users Suffer From Lack of Positive Messages

Despite the large number of posts on visual social media platforms that suggest—and fuel—depressing or suicidal thoughts, there aren’t many for users to read and share that would help them cope with their mental state more proactively, a University of Georgia study finds.

Co-author Yan Jin, an associate professor of public relations in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication, is hoping health professionals can fill the gap with positive messages and images related to depression coping strategies.

The recent study was completed as a joint project between UGA and Virginia Commonwealth University—researchers from both schools helped complete the research.

Published in Public Relations Review, the research focused on Pinterest posts—a popular social media site with more than 100 million monthly active users where participants are able to “pin,” “like” or “repin” photos and text that relate to them.

The study found that many on Pinterest are using the site to display their depressed thoughts and feelings.

“We found that when depression is being communicated or portrayed on Pinterest via images or text, there is a lack of more proactive coping approaches also being portrayed on Pinterest,” Jin said.

Jin and her research team analyzed 783 Pinterest posts, categorizing them on their level of depression. They found that “more than half of the pins referred to the seriousness and severity of depression,” according to the study results.

Researchers found that some posts were subtler and would include dark poetry or depressing messages that would suggest a very depressive mood.

Other posts would be more straightforward—openly talking about suicidal thoughts or posting images of someone harming him or herself, according to Jin.

Image/MoD/MOD via wikimedia commons
Image/MoD/MOD via wikimedia commons

When analyzing these posts, Jin said there was a lack of specific coping strategies to balance out pins that suggest depressing thoughts. The study also found few health professionals and health public relations practitioners addressing the issue of depression on Pinterest.

“Conversations on social media platforms, especially ones like Pinterest, can provide insight in how both depression sufferers and others engage in conversation about this disorder outside of a formal health care setting,” said study co-author Jeanine Guidry, a doctoral student in the department of social behavioral sciences at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Jin and her research team have been studying social media research for a number of years—looking for ways public relations practitioners can better reach different types of audiences in different situations. Her past research has mainly focused on text-based social media.

“We are shifting focus to more visual social media, like Pinterest and Instagram, which are different from Facebook or Twitter because they are less text driven,” Jin said.

Visual social media is becoming more widely used, and many users “pin” or “share” pictures that display their feelings.

Pinterest can be a good way to express one’s thoughts and feelings, and users are, in a sense, venting or sharing their emotions with other users who may feel the same, according to Jin. This venting could be considered a form of coping with stress or depression.

A longer-term healing process is still necessary, and individuals also need to hear from a medical professional’s perspective. Based on the study’s results, professional solutions or advice is what’s missing on Pinterest.

“Depression is a serious illness, as well as a public health issue,” Guidry said. “This can help us understand both depression and the way we cope with it in a more comprehensive manner.

“There is a lack of representation from other health or medical organizations, and few have been engaged in this kind of dialogue or conversation on Pinterest with individuals who are suffering from or talking about depression. What kind of healing processes, support or lifestyle activities do health professionals recommend to these people that they can seek out?”

The study also found that pictures could be a more effective way to reach depressed users.

“This is a great opportunity for health professionals and health public relations professionals to engage in and put in more effective messages out there on this platform,” Jin said, “involving such things as health tips on how to deal with depression or providing the right coping mechanism to facilitate more positive discussions in this community.”

Additional study co-authors are Yuan Zhang and Candace Parrish from Virginia Commonwealth University. The study, “Portrayals of Depression on Pinterest and Why Public Relations Practitioners Should Care,” is available at


Study Links Facebook Connections, Alcohol Use in College-Aged Females

Researchers at the University of Georgia have found links between certain patterns of connections among Facebook friends and drug and alcohol use among college-aged females.

Using network data extracted from the Facebook accounts of 318 female students at UGA, researchers found that the severity of child physical abuse is associated with how central an individual is in her social network, potentially increasing the risk for alcohol abuse.

Assaf Oshri, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor in the human development and family science department within the College of Family and Consumer Sciences, is the study’s lead author. As director of the college’s Youth Development Lab, Oshri studies the links between childhood experiences and the development of risk behaviors in adolescents and young adults.

“If you try to describe the relationship between early child abuse to risk behavior such as substance abuse, it’s interesting to know that online social networks play a role in this mechanism,” Oshri said. “It’s important to note that this is a correlational study, not experimental, so any causal association should not be made out of this data.”

The data extracted from the students’ social networks, with the consent of the user, was mapped to show unique patterns of connections.

Among the key findings of the study:
• Students with a history of childhood physical abuse were found to have more densely interconnected groups of Facebook friends, patterns associated with higher risk for alcohol use and problems.
• Students with a history of childhood sexual abuse were found to have more loosely interconnected groups of Facebook friends, dominated by a few friends. This pattern is associated with decreased alcohol use and problems.
• Facebook users who were embedded in densely interconnected group of friends were more likely to use alcohol than those in more sparsely connected social networks. In other words, the more a Facebook user’s friends are also friends with one another, the more likely she is to misuse alcohol.
• Students who were less important or less connected in their own networks were more likely to use alcohol.

“Leveraging social media to understand risk for addiction is a new, emerging frontier,” said James MacKillop, study co-author and director of the Peter Boris Centre for Addictions Research at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. “Platforms like Facebook provide us with new ways to characterize social networks’ influences on healthy and unhealthy behavior.”

While Oshri noted there are definite limitations to the study, the potential for using online social networks to determine risk and to even create targeted interventions is a possibility.

“Social networks analysis emerges as a powerful methodological tool to better understand the social media peer environment,” said study co-author Itai Himelboim, an associate professor in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

“We know that there is a link between child abuse and risk behaviors,” Oshri said. “It seems like social media might either buffer or assist with it.”

The study appears in the November issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Other co-authors are graduate students Josephine Kwon from the Youth Development Lab and Tara Sutton from the UGA department of sociology.

The study, “Childhood Physical and Sexual Abuse and Social Network Patterns on Social Media: Associations With Alcohol Use and Problems Among Young Adult Women,” is available online at