Adolescents with over 300 friends on Facebook have higher levels of cortisol circulating in their bodies, a study has found. On the other hand, it also said socialising on Facebook — involving liking, sharing of content produced by ‘friends’ — reduces the cortisol levels. And, for the uninitiated, here’s cortisol’s function.
What is cortisol?
Cortisol, popularly known as ‘stress hormone’, is produced in the adrenal cortex in response to stress. The levels of cortisol in the body fluctuates through the day, depending on a range of factors, including stress levels, food intake etc. The cortisol levels are high at the start of a day and slowly decrease as the day progresses. And, the fluctuations also have a bearing on other functions of the body.
To counter the stress at hand, Cortisol shuts down certain activities temporarily and prolonged circulation of high levels of cortisol leads to many negative effects, such as sleep deprivation, higher blood pressure and lower immunity functions. Likewise, lesser circulation also leads to health complications. So a proper fluctuation of cortisol levels is essential to a healthy life.
Now, back to the study.
Cortisol levels and Facebook usage
The study asked participants, who were between 12 and 17 years of age, to provide salivary samples four times a day — at awakening, 30 minutes following awakening, before dinner, and before going to bed — for three weeks. They found that bigger the friend network, higher the cortisol concentration levels; and no association between Facebook use frequency and depressive symptoms in adolescents.
The second claim needs to be seen in context of the sample and the time frame for which the participants were observed. Depression, especially among adolescents with higher than average cortisol concentrations, needs to be seen from a different perspective. Some studies have shown that prolonged high levels of cortisol can lead to depression at a later stage.
The study notes, “while we did not find any significant correlations between FB use frequency and cortisol concentrations, we must be cautious in our interpretations of high versus low cortisol systemic output during this complex developmental period marked by numerous challenges in social and emotional adaptation. The functional significance of our findings must be demarcated further in future studies that take into account other overlapping factors…”
Latest studies indicate that at least 15.7 million adults in the U.S. suffer at least one major episode of depression in a year. The American Psychological Association says that depression affect at least one in 15 adults and one in six people will suffer from depression at some point in their life. Although one cannot say when it will strike, “but on average, first appears during the late teens to mid-20s.”
Also read: Treating depression among young adults
One of the major limitations of the study is that it’s self-reported. The study notes,
With rapidly changing technological advancements,it is now possible to monitor participants’ Facebook activity pending their consent. ….Future studies should therefore include objective measures by using FB monitoring. Moreover, today’s technologies allow us to examine the time allotted to different FB activities, type of activities performed, and even detect the emotional valence of content posted on FB allowing for the detection of emotional contagion effects (Coviello et al., 2014). Future studies should take advantage of new technologies and other stress biomarkers.
Facebook behaviors associated with diurnal cortisol in adolescents: Is befriending stressful? by Julie Katia Morin-Major, Marie-France Marin, Nadia Durand, Nathalie Wan, Robert-Paul Juster, and Sonia J. Lupien in Psychoneuroendocrinology.