We are at a point in time when internet-facilitated spaces, especially social media platforms, have become an integral part of everyday life. Despite its frequently cited benefits, such as improving connectedness and enabling discourses beyond geographical limitations, it has been argued time and time again that social media usage impacts users’ mental health. This article examines the veracity of this argument and assess the proven implications of social media usage, chiefly, on young minds.
One of the simpler, but frequently discussed, questions related to this topic is: can the state of a person’s mental health be measured by the time they spend on social media platforms?
Several studies disagree with the contention that mental health indicators deteriorate with the amount of time spent on social media platforms. They do, however, support the argument that mental health can be adversely affected by how one spends their time on these spaces. Hence, one may argue that the state of a person’s mental health may be gauged by looking into the activities they engage in online, and not by measuring the amount of time they spend on virtual platforms. Notwithstanding, the time spent online by persons can reveal alarming patterns in some cases. Internet and social media addiction, which refers to the tendency to spend excessive amounts of time online, has been observed as a common issue, primarily, among young adults, with real impacts on productivity and psychological functioning. One aspect of a child’s life that has been studied as influencing internet addiction is the nature of relationship the child has with their parents. In their study of the correlation between parenting styles and internet addiction, Hsieh et. al. (2018) observes that youngsters with authoritarian parents who resorted to ‘shaming’ as a technique to discipline children exhibited signs of internet addiction more than youngsters who had good relationships with their parents. They posit that when shaming is used by parents to discipline, children often internalize this shame and seek comfort in virtual spaces, like social media, where they can avoid real problems.
Another important question that rises with respect to the theme ‘social media and mental health’ is: what does the ‘culture of shaming’ prevalent on social media speak of perpetrators’ mental health? What are some of the observed mental health-related consequences of online shaming?
Needless to say, the internet is a peculiar space, not least because it has been observed to facilitate both positive, support networks and negative, abusive content. The culture of shaming pervasive on social media platforms, which has been linked to mental health issues ranging from moral insensitivity to deleterious ideas of the body, is one that belongs to the latter category. Shaming on social media takes several forms, of which cyberbullying and trolling are a few, and is, often, done publicly to attract a wider audience than it would in offline scenarios. Online body shaming, often considered a subtype of cyberbullying, is a major online shaming technique that leaves receivers of such abuse feeling inadequate. Additionally, online body shaming has been studied to promote unhealthy, unverified stereotypes of the ‘ideal body’ and researchers have observed that the impact of shaming-intended abuse, is perceived differently by different persons.
More worryingly, studies point to the fact that social media, in general, reduces persons’ moral sensitivities. Scholars now increasingly posit that the absence of tangible cues on the internet’s virtual spaces makes it difficult for those participating in abuse to understand how their receivers experience said abuse. This decreases abusers’ abilities to empathize with their victims’ pain and makes it easier for them to engage in abusive activities. Social media also facilitates cyberviolence by offering persons the option to remain anonymous. This option leads several people to disregard their inner censorship, which may, otherwise, have kept them from taking part in certain activities. A study by Ge (2020) finds that cyberbullies often receive more followers and likes, which validate their actions, thus motivating them to continue with their abusive activities. Ge also observes that continued exposure to uncivil environments online encourages others to join this vicious cycle. In a similar vein, Kasra (2017), in her article discussing the use of disturbing images to promote some kinds of digital vigilantism, argues that the permanence of material on the internet is a bigger problem than acknowledged. Such materials, when used to oppress or shame person(s) online, remain on the internet long after the incident is over, keeping alive the option to retrieve it at a later point in time. Moreover, such methods of shaming, abuse, and oppression promotes and normalizes a sense of incivility on social media platforms, the exposure of young minds to which can only have negative consequences.
Lastly, what are some of the positive impacts of social media concerning mental health? How may a balance be achieved between the above-mentioned evils and the possible benefits of engaging on social media platforms?
It cannot be denied that social media platforms and other internet-facilitated spaces do have their share of positives. For instance, a study conducted among depressed adolescents in the US yielded results that expose the ends of this spectrum. While these adolescents were observed as more likely to be subjected to bullying or to engage in oversharing, they claimed that sharing their depression-related problems online yielded supportive comments that helped them cope with symptoms of weak mental health. They commented that, on social media platforms, they find the space to explore their identity and connect with similarly-suffering peers, which helps fight the isolation they feel in offline gatherings and conversations. Many also felt that the option to stay anonymous helped them stay safe from judgment and stigma. However, it was noted by the study that it was easier for depressed youngsters to feel that people they encounter online have perfect lives based off their online personas. This was likely to make them worse about themselves. Moreover, persons already going through difficult phases with respect to their mental health were found likely to stress-post, a subtype of oversharing, which could contain sensitive information and also to interact with strangers online. A few tips the youngsters themselves followed to stay safe online and to harness the positive aspects of the internet were to consciously avoid interacting with strangers, staying away from negative discourses that could affect their mental health, and engaging in more purposive activities online, like join social media groups created for persons suffering from depression to support each other. They found idly scrolling on social media to be unproductive and an ineffective strategy to handle mental health issues.
The advancement of internet technology has spawned several features that have the capacity to constructively contribute to the study, detection, and handling of mental health issues. Researchers have studied the scope of and the potential held by social networking sites to help identify persons with deteriorating mental health, especially since it allows connecting with many people quickly than would have been possible offline. The secret lies in figuring out how to harness the benefits offered by social media while staying away from its vices. As far as young minds are considered, having a good relationship with parents is vital in preventing internet addiction and over-indulgence. Parents who put in the effort to gently, but firmly, ensure that their child’s moral compass points in the right direction can certainly help in preventing harmful online engagements. The malleability of young minds can prove useful when parents and peers cultivate safe, healthy, and open spaces for communication and self-discovery.
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Article by: Nasreen Basheer, Intern (Batch 2022)