The internet and social media have mushroomed since the first email was delivered more than 40 years ago. Nowadays, in our technology-driven world, using the internet for instant communication is an integral part of modern life.
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With around one in four people worldwide using social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter, this new way of communicating has eliminated the constraints of time and location, allowing people to share their lives and interact with others, no matter where they are.
Much has been written and said about the pros and cons of social media – not least in terms of mental health. Here’s what you should know.
What is social media?
Social media essentially refers to a range of websites that enable people to interact worldwide using discussion, photos, audio and video.
Facebook was the first social network to exceed one billion registered accounts, according to the latest data by global statistics portal Statista.
Its October 2014 statistics on leading global social networks ranked by number of active users (in millions) showed Facebook way ahead at 1.320 billion. This was followed by QZone (645 million), Google+ (343 million), LinkedIn (300 million), Twitter (271 million), Tumblr (230 million) and Tencent Weibo (220 million).
Social-media newcomers that are currently growing in popularity include Pinterest and Instagram.
How popular is social media?
Roughly 73% of online adults now use a social-networking site of some kind, according to the Pew Research Centre’s 2013 Social Media Update Project, which provides statistics updated to January 2014.
Report results are based on data from telephone interviews with 1 801 adults, aged 18 and older.
Other interesting results from the report show that:
• Many people don’t confine their online activity to one service, with approximately 42% of online adults using multiple social networking sites.
• Usage among older people has also increased significantly. Some 45% of internet users, age 65 or older, now use Facebook – up from 35% in late 2012.
• Women are more likely to use Facebook than men.
• 60% of Facebook users report going onto the site at least daily, while 40% log on multiple times per day. Other platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter show similar frequency usage.
Impact on mental health
So, accepting that social media clearly plays an important part in our lives, how does it affect us and impact on our mental health?
According to Professor Jessica Vitak of the College of Information Studies at the University of Maryland, the relationship between social media and mental health is far too complex to suggest that it has blanket effects across users.
“We need to look at the context of use and individual factors such as existing mental state to begin to understand whether one’s use of social media will have a more positive or more negative effect,” she explains.
Regarded as an expert on social-media usage and its effect on people’s relationships, Dr Vitak’s master’s thesis entailed a survey of more than 600 Georgetown University undergraduates regarding their uses of various technologies, including Facebook, to interact with different members of their social networks.
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Some researchers have suggested that using sites such as Facebook may exacerbate anxiety, reduce confidence and increase feelings of inadequacy. However, many of these studies – such as the poll by the University of Salford’s Business School on behalf of charity organisation Anxiety UK – involved fewer than 300 people.
Prof Vitak’s take is that social media is neither positive nor negative in and of itself. “What matters is what we’re posting, the features of a given site, and who we’re interacting with.”
What are the societal implications?
The Social Media and Society 2014 Conference held in Toronto in September 2014 focused on best practices for studying the impact and implications of social media on society, attracting leading social media experts and researchers from around the world.
“Common lore asserts that extensive adoption of social media results in increased alienation and more fleeting relationships within society,” commented keynote speaker Prof Keith Hampton, Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Social Media Cluster at Rutgers School of Communication and Information.
However, his research found that “social media results in more persistent relationships and an increased awareness of the activities of one’s social ties through digital technology”.
Prof Hampton added that, with regards to stress and social media, women who use social media felt less psychological stress but more social stress, while men generally didn’t display any correlation between social-media use and stress (though they may feel some social stress when hearing about a friend’s demotion or interaction with a crime).
Professor Vitak’s own research echoes that of Prof Hampton in some aspects. She has found that, for many people, social media can provide social benefits in terms of social and emotional support and maintaining relationships that would have faded away without the technology.
She adds that social-media exchanges – such as birthday wishes or congratulatory messages after a major life event – may make people feel more connected to their social network and loved.
She concedes that, in some situations, social media use may be toxic for one’s mental health, as in the case of cyber bullying and online harassment.
“Like everything, social media in moderation can have positive benefits for users – people can stay connected to distant friends, share important life events with their network, as well as discover new ideas and information from total strangers,” Prof Vitak asserts.
Social media can be a source of tension
While Prof Vitak believes Facebook has the biggest potential to positively impact on the mental health of users, she remarks that it’s also the source of much tension because the site changes the way we interact with different groups of people.
Known as “context collapse” – when social networks are “flattened” into a simple homogenous group such as Facebook friends – Prof Vitak says it “can cause problems in home or workplace relationships”.
These may include factors such as sharing content with an entire social network, even though a specific update may only be intended for a subset of the network, the availability of fewer social cues, which may lead to messages being misinterpreted, and the tendency to selectively portray primarily positive content about one’s life.
As we continue living in an increasingly networked world – and with social networking sites offering one of the most popular methods people currently use to connect with others – it seems clear that despite concerns about possible negative consequences to our mental health, social media isn’t going to disappear any time soon.
Tips from social-media experts
• When you use technology, make sure it doesn’t detract from important relationships and responsibilities. If your child or spouse complains that you’re always on your smartphone, you may want to cut back and do more things that involve direct interaction.
• If you start skipping work or college because you spent all night playing League of Legends, or if chatting on Facebook with friends means you’re unable to meet deadlines, you should re-evaluate your priorities – that is, if your job or studies are important to you.
• If you feel worse after using a social-media site, you may want to change who you interact with, or decide whether you want to use the site at all.
• It may be helpful to take “social-media vacations”, where you stop using a site for a period of time and then come back, or take breaks during the day by switching off devices.
• If you’re being harassed on social-media sites and feel it’s negatively impacting your well-being, make sure you know what you can do to protect yourself. This could include measures such as reporting a person harassing you or blocking them.
• If you’re a parent and are concerned that your child is spending too much time on social media, look for creative ways to encourage or even make it compulsory to ensure “off” time away from sites and devices.
• Good sources to get help or more information include Netaddiction.com and Enough is Enough (EIE). Internetsafety101.org is an organisation that aims to make internet use safer for children and families.
Social-media addiction – cause for concern?
Too much of anything (in this case excessive use of social media), and the need to continually be connected electronically at the expense of mental wellbeing, have led to the term “technology addiction” or “internet addiction”. Even more contentious is the notion that it should be considered a medical disorder.
The nature of this perceived addiction varies, but it generally entails constantly checking instant messaging (IM) apps, frequently changing status updates and uploading “selfie”images on social-networking sites.
While some mental health professionals advocate including internet addiction as a DSM diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, others, like psychiatrist Dr Adrian Wang of Singapore’s Gleneagles Medical Centre, are against this.
He regards internet addiction as “more of a symptom of a larger problem – anxiety, depression, boredom, self-esteem issues, to name a few – than an illness itself”.
Dr Wang concedes that some individuals with addictive personalities may be more vulnerable to developing such an addiction, adding that a combination of factors – e.g. an addictive personality, access to technology from an increasingly young age, plus a trigger such as depression or anxiety – could make the habit snowball and develop into symptoms of full-blown addiction.
His sentiments on internet addiction are echoed by researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) who conducted a study among European youths in November 2012. They used the term “excessive use” instead of addiction to describe patterns of “repetitive, compulsive and uncontrolled use”.
In their study, the LSE researchers commented: “Psychological approaches suggest that people use the internet excessively to compensate for social or psychological difficulties, and deficits in personal well-being in terms of their everyday offline life.
Studies have linked sensation seeking (a tendency to pursue excitement and sensory pleasure), loneliness and emotional problems (such as depression and low self-confidence) to excessive internet use.”
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Dr Jessica Vitak says that with the dramatic shift to technology-based communication over the past century, “addiction” is a highly overused word.
“Just because people are dependent on a technology – because it makes tedious tasks easier and provides entertainment and social connection – doesn’t mean they’re addicted in today’s world.”
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2. Pew Research Center Social Media Update 2013 Report: Demographics of key social networking platforms.
3. Online interview with Professor Jessica Vitak, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland. October 2014.
4. Jessica Vitak Ph.D: Facebook makes the heart grow fonder: relationship maintenance strategies among geographically dispersed and communication-restricted connections. In Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing (CSCW '14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 842-853.
5. Proceedings of the Social Media and Society conference in Toronto, Canada, Sept. 27-28, 2014.https://socialmediaandsociety.com/?p=1218.
6. Jennifer Golbeck, Ph.D. How social media helps us maintain relationships over distance and time. Published on October 10, 2014 in Psychology Today in Your Online Secrets blog.
7. Elizabeth A. Martin, Drew H. Bailey, David C. Cicero, John G. Kerns Social networking profile correlates of schizotypy"Psychiatry Research, January 2013, doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2012.06.0314Like547.