Health & Fitness

How social media use shapes mental health

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Summary

  • Harmful effects attendant to the information age has been the subject of serious scientific enquiries for a number of years.
  • Even accepting the fact that generally the digital space is more beneficial than harmful, it is none the less important to check on the potential mental health consequences of social media.
  • For some years now, a number of studies have found a relationship between the use of social media and some mental disorders.

“I have repeatedly heard about claims that social media hampers mental development. How is that even possible?”

***

Your question leads me to ponder a number of things that we often take for granted. One of my electronic gadgets told me that last week my contact with it had gone up to an average of four hours and six minutes per day.

Upon reflection, this made sense because this is the device that I use to see some of my patients and also lecture. As Covid -19 continues to ravage the world, use of such technology will in all probability continue to increase. Telemedicine is one rapidly growing field and many mental health workers are now able to offer consultations virtually.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists has for example given guidelines that instruct members over the age of 70 to restrict contact with patients to virtual consultations only. My gadget, (without any specific request from me) calculated the time spent on this task, and has brought the matter to my attention.

The other thought to have visited me is the matter of money transfer in the Covid-19 era. It is now almost the universal that transactions take place digitally and this has played an invaluable role in reducing virus transmission.

There are an estimated 3.9 billion users of social media in the world today. Facebook, YouTube and Instagram each claims more than two billion subscribers! Kenyans have not been left behind and an estimated nine million subscribe to various media platforms.

All this information is stated here to make the point that there is no possibility of anyone escaping from the world of social media and the best we can do now is to embrace the positives and manage the possible negative consequences.

Harmful effects attendant to the information age has been the subject of serious scientific enquiries for a number of years. Even accepting the fact that generally the digital space is more beneficial than harmful, it is none the less important to check on the potential mental health consequences of social media.

For some years now, a number of studies have found a relationship between the use of social media and some mental disorders. Findings have lead to the suggestion that a new mental disorder be recognised and be given the name, Internet Addiction Disorder.

This has not happened in the formal classification systems but the pressure from both clinicians and researchers remains high for its recognition. Many scientific studies speak in support of your suggestion, namely that social media can somehow be harmful to some people.

That said, it is not yet established that there is a cause and effect relationship, meaning that although harm has been found in social media users, it is not established that social media is the actual ‘cause’.

What is clear however is that people with certain mental disorders tend to have higher chances of developing the clinical syndrome described as internet addiction.

Depression, anxiety, ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and social phobia are a few such examples. A depressed person could for example spend all day and most of his nights in social media as the only source of contact with the outside word. Similarly, a person with social phobia could spend time with virtual friends to the exclusion of real people.

During the past few years it has been established that loneliness is as great a killer as smoking and lack of exercise. Many lonely teenagers and now, increasingly their grandparents spend most of their waking time following virtual friends in social media platforms.

Put differently, people with problems of depression or loneliness find social media as a coping (if harmful) method of dealing with their problems, much as the alcoholic fills his void.

Sadly, many people are now afflicted by the condition called internet addiction disorder in which the patient spends all his time and money gambling on the internet. This is an example of what is called an emerging disorder which also speaks in support of your concern about social media.

An indication of similar addiction is if you often wake up at night to check your social media accounts. Further, if the first thing you do in the morning is to check your accounts, then you might need help.

Like the alcoholic, if those near to your complain of neglect as you spend time on your gadgets, take note and do something about it before it is too late.

Dr Frank Njenga is a mental health consultant.