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Tue Sep 02 21:09:08 SAST 2014

Research links social media and psychotic episodes

AFP Relaxnews | 22 November, 2012 09:32

Image by: AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER

New research from Tel Aviv University's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Shalvata Mental Health Care Center has found a link between social media and psychotic episodes.

According to the paper's author, Dr. Uri Nitzan, social media's ability to connect people in separate countries, and to foster and develop virtual relationships can pose a threat to users who are lonely, vulnerable or technologically naïve.

The study, published this week in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, presents three in-depth case studies of patients treated by Dr. Nitzan: the patients shared certain characteristics such as vulnerability caused by the separation from or loss of a loved one and no prior history of psychosis or substance abuse. Each individual experienced psychotic episodes, allegedly triggered by internet communications.

Seeking comfort in virtual relationships

As Dr. Nitzan explains, each of the patients sought solace in social media and to begin with developed positive virtual relationships, yet as the relationships developed so did the patients' negative feelings: "All of the patients developed psychotic symptoms related to the situation, including delusions regarding the person behind the screen and their connection through the computer," he says.

Dr. Nitzan is also quick to stress that in each case the patient sought help for their problems and has since made a full recovery. However, their experiences underline some of the issues relating to social media that can have a negative impact on less self-confident users -- who can easily become the target of predators or cyberbullies.

Navigating the tricky terrain of cyber 'friendship'

It also highlights the emotional maturity often required to be able to decode sent messages. Without being able to look a person in the eye during a conversation, it is often a challenge to know if a comment is serious or meant as a joke.

Likewise it can become all too easy for users to idealize ‘friends' they have never met and for those ‘friends' to exaggerate details about themselves, safe in the knowledge that they will never physically meet.

This anonymity has led to a growing and worrying trend in internet ‘trolling' where disparaging and offensive comments are left on sensitive articles, social media memorial pages or even tweeted directly to Twitter users.

Addressing social networking habits during treatment

This capacity for causing harm via anonymity will be one of the subjects of Dr. Nitzan's future studies, looking at the use of Facebook and other social media sites. "When you ask somebody about their social life, it's very sensible to ask about Facebook and social networking habits, as well as Internet use. How people conduct themselves on the Internet is quite important to psychiatrists, who shouldn't ignore this dimension of their patients' behavior patterns," he says.

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