Is social media doing all it can to deal with mental health issues?

  • Do social media platforms need to do more to protect their users' mental health?
  • Addiction to this kind of technology can fuel depression and anxiety for the sake of profit.
  • Social media should be used as a tool for connection, not as a coping mechanism.

In the early days of the internet, few people could predict the meteoric rise of social media - and the force of its impact on society.

But just shy of three decades later, digital is threatening to overshadow the real world. Social media has revolutionised - for better or worse - how we live our lives, how we work, how we spend our free time and even how we find love.

Social media has also had a far-reaching political impact, notably in the 2016 US elections, and has polarised and mobilised contrasting political views across the world. 

Its impact on our collective mental health has also become a popular topic for articles and psychological studies. Research has shown social media use is intricately linked to a decline in mental health. This happens as a result of insidious activities like targeting users' insecurities, or the proliferation of bleak and violent ideologies.

One study with more than 5 000 participants indicated just increasing one's Facebook use through status updates and likes leads to a 5 to 8% decline in perceived mental health. 

READ | More social media use, more fake Covid news 

Our dilemma

In a new Netflix documentary - The Social Dilemma - this topic is highlighted through a poignant fact: Current social media platforms are designed by businessmen, not psychologists, and as younger generations are exposed to the dark side of social media at an increasingly early age, it doesn't bode well for their future mental health. 

One expert in the documentary noted something interesting: The human brain tends to follow a slow evolutionary path, but digital technology has evolved at lightning speed in an incredibly short time.

Basically, our brains can't keep up with the pace of technology and we are overwhelmed by the glut of information we have to process on a daily basis. In the long run, it can short-circuit our mental stability by tying our confidence to the number of "likes" we get and creating unrealistic expectations from life.

READ MORE | Coronavirus news on social media stressing you out? Here's how to handle the anxiety 

Viral suicide

But who should take responsibility for the two billion brains using social media?

Lately, social media giants like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have been heavily criticised for their addictive designs and data breaches, as well as the proliferation of fake news. Most of them have policies against content that glorifies and promotes suicide and self-harm, but a recent incident proves how much more needs to be done.

A graphic Facebook Live video of a suicide went viral, popping up in TikTok's recommendations page, and users splicing it into "normal" videos to fool unsuspecting viewers. A week later they are still struggling to completely scrub the video from their platform, depending on users reporting it.

It's not hard to imagine how someone struggling with their own mental health would react when bombarded with something so visceral.

The upside

However, there have also been some positives. Last week, Twitter rolled out a new feature on its platform for South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria. In any searches related to suicide and self-harm, the top result will be a prompt to reach out for help alongside contact details of local help groups like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

On Facebook, there is a function to report a post as a potential suicide red flag. It has also been using machine learning since 2017 that recognises certain flagged phrases and activities and puts the poster in touch with local resources.

But a lot of this is dependent on self-monitoring in the community, which could exacerbate the problem through cyber-bullying and suicide encouragement. 

It is not all doom and gloom though; a study published earlier this year found routine use of social media can improve social well-being and mental health when incorporated into daily social interactions and as a way to reconnect with people.

But the opposite is also true when users develop an emotional attachment to social media, using it to relieve stress or loneliness instead of catching up with friends and loved ones.

READ | Trying to get over a breakup? Social media will only make it worse – even if you block or unfollow your ex 

What can we do?

The Centre for Humane Technology - an educational non-profit focused on social media's effects on society at large - believes more pressure needs to be applied on these massive companies to radically transform their algorithms and platforms so as not to monetise outrage, depression and addiction.

The centre was co-founded by Google's former design ethicist, Tristan Harris, who started seeing the problems with social media early on. He has been trying to lobby the US government to impose stricter regulations on these tech giants who have been conducting business fairly unopposed.

For the individual, it can be a bit harder to break the social media addiction. Some practical steps recommended by experts in The Social Dilemma include turning off notifications on your phone, gaming the algorithm by not watching any recommended videos and instituting digital detoxes from time to time.

Social media needs to become a tool again for connecting with the world, instead of a coping mechanism that extracts our attention for money, compromising our peace of mind in the process.

READ MORE | More evidence links social media use to poorer mental health in teens

If you want to seek professional help, contact the SA Depression and Anxiety Group hotline on 0800 567 567 or Lifeline on 0800 121 314. These free services are available 24/7 to anyone and are confidential. 

Image credit: Unsplash

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