Facebook a faux fix when it comes to grieving

VICTORIA (CUP) — I checked Facebook almost every day for a month after my boyfriend broke up with me. Not just every day, but 10 to 30 times every day.

I say “almost” every day because I want to believe there was at least one 24-hour period when I went without scouring my page for any trace that he still cared. In reality, though, I know it got to the point where I would check my page, then his page, then the home page and back to my page so many times a day, it almost felt like I was still a part of his life.

Pathetic? You betcha. That much I could figure out. What I didn’t realize, at least until my best friend demanded I give her my password and surrender my techno-stalking privileges immediately, was that it was also quite dangerous — not just to my health, but to my entire grieving process.

A new study released by the University of Illinois shows that people who use Facebook as a form of grieving — see: keeping attached to those lost — actually set themselves back considerably from those who endure a Facebook-less time of trauma.

The study, which was performed on students following the mass shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University in 2008, asked about 300 students to provide feedback on their emotional states and online grieving activities. Overall, 89 per cent of students joined a Facebook group dedicated to victims of the shootings, 74 per cent replaced their profile picture with a memorial image, 64 per cent wrote about the shootings on a friend’s wall and 13 per cent left a message on a victim’s wall.

Despite all those activities, two weeks after the shootings 71 per cent of students had symptoms of depression and 64 per cent showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder — much higher than estimates under normal circumstances. And two months after the tragedy, people’s online grief-sharing activities had made no difference in their emotional states, even though people felt like it was helping.

“What I found was that … there was no relation between how many Facebook groups students joined, how many messages they left on victims’ walls and their depression and PTSD symptoms six months later,” Amanda Vicary, a doctoral candidate in psychology who led the study, told media. “However, students did report that right after participating in these behaviours, they did feel better.”

Okay, so a breakup is hardly comparable to people who have undergone the deep trauma of a school-shooting, but it’s easy to understand Vicary’s ideas that online grieving, whether by looking through people’s walls or writing a farewell message, might make someone feel better temporarily but have no lasting effect. In fact, Vicary said there could even be a placebo effect at work, because it can feel like a person is still present long after they’re not in our lives.

“Maybe emailing or communicating with a close friend versus a stranger on a Facebook group, maybe that affects people differently, but we just don’t know,” Vicary said, adding that while the media has been “fascinated” by electronic mourning, no one seems to really know what to make of it.

While many studies have explored the variance between how much time people spend online and their subsequent emotional well being, Vicary’s study is the first of its kind that examines how online grieving affects people. She was inspired to conduct the research after seeing her friends flood Facebook with messages, groups and photos following the Virginia Tech massacre that left 32 people dead.

Janet Sheppard, a counsellor with University of Victoria’s counselling services says, when it comes to stress and grief, trying to carry on like normal is more worrisome than facing the facts — something we don’t always have to do when social media sites like Facebook and Twitter can keep us too intimately in the loop.

“Ironically, trying to carry on as though everything is fine is about the most damaging thing I’ve observed,” she said. “I don’t think we can ever prepare for trauma, it could end up looking like staying in bed with the sheets over our heads … what most people need in that process is permission, understanding and support.”

Sheppard recommends that if things feel like they’re getting worse and last for more than a few weeks, it’s never a bad idea to seek professional help. She also says to watch for feelings of hopelessness, apathy or prolonged despair. Often, as Vicary’s study showed, when people can distract themselves from those feelings long enough, they think they’ve outrun them when they’re really just snowballing over time.

Indeed, distraction had been my own master tool. It’s a little comfort, now at least, to know that ignoring my online social life might make my internal social life all the easier. In the meantime, I’ll probably still look mournfully at Facebook for a while yet — just safely outside the login screen.

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