With social media, everyone wants to be heard. But can it have adverse effects? And how addictive is it?
– By Dr. Anne Mbonu
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Tumblr, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr, Skype, Viber, Google+, Reddit; these are just a few of the names that currently dominate the social media universe. And the list is by no means exhaustive. With the dizzying pace of technological innovation, some of the lesser known social media platforms may yet emerge as future giants and the current leaders could potentially fade into relative obscurity, if they do not keep up with the zeitgeist. Recent history tells of erstwhile technological “Goliaths” felled by previously little “David” start-ups who now rule the arena.
The ubiquity of social media platforms depends on the plethora of consumers who repeatedly click, tap, post, share, tweet, ping, upload, download, sign up and log in. It is truly amazing to see the proliferation of internet based social networks, and indeed mind-boggling to contemplate the immense changes they have brought about in human interactions and socialisation.
Socialization is the process through which humans learn what society deems as normal and acceptable, and the consequent adaptations in their behaviour to ensure social integration and ultimately, survival. Understanding this concept enables us to recognise the far reaching implications of unfettered access to social media and the impact it is having on us all.
On the face of it, the widespread use of social networks appears to be an entirely positive development for humanity. The profusion of available mobile devices has boosted access to unprecedented levels.After all, we do enjoy restored connections to long lost friends and family, fast and facile communications with whomsoever we wish, improved networking capabilities to enhance our social and professional progress, 24 hour access to a panoply of entertainment and information outlets, not to mention the advantages for global business. We have all this at our finger tips and at relatively little financial cost.
The images and content on social media show us what the rest of the world is doing – what they are buying, where they are going, how they are dressing, and so on. Therefore social media is redefining societal norms and practices, and the degree to which we adhere to these new conventions determines our social integration and progress.
Parents are permitting their children to handle internet-enabled devices from very young ages, and this presents a particular problem since they are growing up online. This can affect their psychological development, especially, of their personality, their ethical code and dare I say, moral compass. There have been unfortunate incidents of children taking their own lives after having negative experiences online.
Social media preys on people’s “Gossip instinct,” that seemingly in-born desire to know what others are doing at all times so that we can either compete to best them, or at the very least ensure that we are keeping up with the Joneses. People repeatedly check their mobile devices for the latest news or update, often leading to distraction at work and whilst performing attention demanding tasks like driving. It also results in sleep deprivation and worst of all, deterioration of real life social interaction. The pressure to conform can be very damaging, especially to those who lack an inherent sense of self, and must therefore base their behaviour on what they see others doing. It is, thus, apparent that what was originally conceived to bring us together could end up driving us further apart.
The relatively low barriers to accessing social media do present distinct drawbacks that are difficult, if not impossible to ignore. As people spend more and more time engaging with social networking platforms, the evidence demonstrating their addictive potential and adverse effects on mental health is growing.Some people emerge relatively unscathed whilst others less resilient descend into the mire of what I call “Social Madness”.
In as much as the internet and the profusion of social media outlets can be a link to the world for business and for those who might otherwise be completely isolated, it can also be an avenue through which people with more predatory instincts can more effectively target their prey of choice. These cyber bullies can ruin many lives from the relative safety of the obscurity provided by their computer screens.
24 hour all access with little to no editorial oversight or censorship from social media platforms themselves (who by the way, insist that they are not responsible for this by claiming not to be publishers) means that social media provides unfettered access to disturbing and sometimes radicalising material that can easily be utilised by terrorist organisations to radicalise and recruit vulnerable individuals to their ranks.
The incessant demand placed on susceptible individuals to constantly update their profiles leads to untold levels of stress for many. Manifestations of excessive time spent on social media platforms include poor sleeping patterns, self-isolation, low self-esteem, relationship breakdown, irritability, stress, mood disorders and anxiety disorders.
On a somewhat less malignant note, many people yearn for social recognition, and often pursue this by providing an incessant stream of personal information to people they can barely call “friends.”Mostly, people present a white-washed and ostensibly perfect version of their lives, but at other times, the information shared online is tantamount to washing one’s dirty linen in public.
We all need some adaptive mechanism that helps to alleviate boredom or improve the tedium of daily living, and social media can serve as one. However, we must be careful not to succumb to its addictive potential, because it is becoming clear that for some people, social media is the drug of choice.
One well known and much used platform has recently admitted that their programming was specifically designed to make it difficult for people to navigate away from their platform, thereby making it easier for vulnerable people to become addicted. That should give us pause.
We must therefore carefully consider the digital footprints we leave behind, that is, the online record of our digital activity. We should ensure that we create a positive trail of comments and images, and once on the internet, it is nigh impossible to erase.
Digital Detoxing is a concept that appeals to me. I recommend that we all have periods of time during which we actively disengage from social media. This time could last anything from several hours to several days, if we can manage.Parents should monitor their children’s online access and ensure that they are only viewing age appropriate content, balancing online activities with real life, face to face interactions with peers and appropriate adults.
On a final note, I challenge us all to become more aware of our personal use of social media, and aim for a healthy balance between our digital lives and our real lives.
More on mental health? Send us your questions.
Dr Anne Mbonu MBBS, MSc International Health Management (distinction) is an accomplished health care professional with almost 20 years of clinical and management experience within the health sector. She honed her skills in the medical specialty of Psychiatry, and completed her Master’s degree in International Health Management with distinction at the Imperial College Business School, London. She is very passionate about improving health and well being in the community, and is registered with the Nigerian Medical and Dental Council as well as the U.K General Medical Council.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read more articles.