Written By: Dr. Fawad Kaisar
Facebook, Twitter, blogs and many more variations are the new e-passports. We are now witnessing the first generation to grow up using social media. Just as there are many variations of social media there are various kinds of people using it. According to one analysis, people with low self-esteem tend to be more active on social media. They use social media mostly for self-promotion. The increase in social media use over the last ten years is almost equal among females and males, but the negative affect on mental health seems to afflict females more than males. The impact of social media as a means to communicate does not just influence the younger generation which feels lost without the internet rather all age groups have taken to its use to some extent. Many researchers in the mental health fields have taken an interest in the impact of social media on mental health and the results are interesting, identifying both positive and negative effects. There are many positive aspects to its use mainly through increased social connectedness and empathy. The speed and spread of information can be of great benefit. It has positive effects on emotional well-being leading to increased confidence, improved social interactivity, more sympathy, less shyness and increased popularity.
The book Psychology of Technology has focused on the phenomenon of virtual empathy which defines it as a conscious attempt by an individual who is trying to share or understand another’s emotional state in a increases the virtual empathic ability which is the best predictor of real life empathy. This once again reflects that those who are more social on a day to day basis are probably high frequency users of social media. The downside, however, of use of social media is that such information may lack credence as the veracity of its source may be questionable. The ability and skill to look to the source of information will become essential to protect oneself from bad information.
Considering its negative effects, use of 11 social media sites–Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook and Reddit–are correlated with perceived social isolation among users and that the more time people spend on these sites, the more socially isolated they perceive themselves to be. Clinically speaking, perceived social isolation has well-known effects both psychologically and physically. There is increased exposure to bullying, harassment and the language of hate to name but a few. Schools in Australia have developed social media policies to give guidance in how to prevent, minimize and tackle online bullying. Such education is essential for the young and may be useful to older individuals as well. How this is tackled at times may need an appreciation of complexities that younger or even older users may not contemplate. Such skills, etiquette and social awareness are required to develop a networking society as a whole.
At the same time there is also compelling evidence that social media can benefit people already dealing with mental health issues by helping them build online communities that provide a source of emotional support. Studies looking at Facebook use and depression also found that people who use the platform primarily to connect with others do not experience the negative effects. In fact, when not triggering feelings of envy, the opinion shows, Facebook could be a good resource and have positive effects on well-being. So while the risks of these platforms is being acknowledged, so should their potential to help people, especially those already struggling with mental health issues.
Despite the preconception that teens are always glued to their mobile phones they do prefer face-to-face contact. Surprisingly they wish to spend more time with their parents but ironically feel that their parents spend too much time using social media. Using social media has its risks and a number of researchers have found an association between prolonged social media use and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, sleep problems, eating disorders, and increased suicide risk. It can be argued either way that spending more time on social media leads to depression or anxiety, or that it is depressed or anxious young people who spend more time on social media. Similarly, it is also important to consider that social media does not affect all people equally as some individuals may be more susceptible to the negative aspects than others. The pathways to mental illness are many and varied, and to suggest mental health problems can be attributed solely to social media would be an oversimplification.
While social media has given rise to elaborate virtual communities, it has brought awareness to important social movements and has supported fundraising for many worthwhile causes. It has also served as a platform and resource for less beneficial and sometimes troubling occurrences at both individual and societal levels. Without a doubt, there are upsides to social media, such as a feeling of community and being able to reach out to others almost anywhere at any time. Social media has provided access to opinions and information that can expand our minds and expose us to different points of view. However, these positive aspects of social media should not be used to overshadow the darker side of it.
Amid all the conflicting research, it remains important to understand if the emotional risks of digital technologies outweigh the rewards. Of course, all of the above are complex and are often exacerbated by or are intertwined with other indicators. Social media’s negative impact occurs mostly as the result of the upward social comparisons we engage in while using it. We tend to make note of the contrasts between a perfectly presented life and our own. Comparisons tend to lower self-esteem, which in turn increases the risk and severity of depressive symptoms, anxiety and a host of other unhealthy feelings and behaviours. We all need to learn to use such media and many will make mistakes as they gain familiarity with its nuances. Clearly the urge to assess and respond quickly is part of the attraction of social media. In some circumstances such a response needs to be tempered or may be even given in a completely different way altogether.
As humans, we cannot help being somewhat competitive. We tend to judge ourselves by comparing our lives to that of others. Social media may appear as a means to connect with other people, but it is a solitary activity and not social with Facebook, Twitter and the like simulating social interaction. It is important to understand that the manner in which social media is used is key to determining whether it is likely to have a positive or negative impact on well-being. So what is the consensus? Psychiatrists and psychologists appear to largely agree that social media is neither wholly good nor wholly bad for our emotional well-being, and that its impact on our mental health depends on a number of factors, including how it is used. Regardless, the impact social media has on us as individuals, organizations and communities is something that can’t–and shouldn’t–be ignored.
The writer is a psychiatrist practicing in UK.