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Three Ways Social Media Is Affecting Our Mental Health

Science Reveals How Social Media Is Affecting Our Moods And Self-esteem

The advent of the Internet over a decade ago and the subsequent emergence of social media platforms has propelled us into the age of hyperconnectivity, henceforth redefined the way people communicate and interact. However, the world’s growing dependency on these platforms is proving to be major cause of concern as it is increasingly associated with risks of neurological complications, psychological disturbances, and social problems, particularly in the younger generations who have never known a world without social media and the Internet.

In Singapore, social media penetration is the third highest in the world at 77%, almost double the global average of 37% according to the latest comprehensive study of digital, social and mobile usage around the world by We Are Social and Hootsuite, Digital in 2017 Global Overview. The survey compiled data from various studies of online behaviour conducted by organisations including GlobalWebIndex, GSMA Intelligence, Statista, and Akamai. In AIA’s 2016 Healthy Living Index Survey, two out of every three Singaporeans also admitted to being addicted to major social networking sites, finding great difficulty attempting to disconnect from these sites. 

Despite these alarming figures, the epidemiology research associate Samantha Rosenthal warns that far too many people are not taking the mental health risks posed by excessive social media use seriously enough. Hence, given these statistics that underscore our country’s burgeoning dependence on social media, here is a quick review of the studies revealing the hidden dangers of social media that can be detrimental to our mental well being, and in some ways profoundly damaging.

It’s Just As Addictive As Drugs 

Though there is no true and standardised criterion for the diagnosis of Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), the gist of the symptoms involve the uncontrollable and excessive need to engage in social media activity to the point that it interferes with daily life and experience of strong negative feelings when one is unable to access these sites. Neurologically, Internet and social media use activates the reward system of the brain, inducing a kick of the feel-good and highly-addictive shot of chemical dopamine whenever we check a notification or receive ‘likes’. A  brain study examining subjects diagnosed with IAD and found evidence of alteration in the white matter, which matched brain scans of people addicted to alcohol, cocaine, heroin and other substances.

Some studies go a step further to purport that these ‘behavioural’ addictions can cause physical brain damages similar to those caused by drug addictions as it can rewire the nervous system and cause symptoms such as ‘phantom vibrations’ – a tactile hallucination that one’s mobile phone is ringing or vibrating when it isn’t. Due to the growing literature documenting the physical effects of IAD, numerous experts have argued that it should be officially recognised as a disorder in the list Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), commonly utilised by psychiatrists. 


It Increases The Risk of Depression And Poor Self-Esteem

Increasingly, researchers have associated online social media platforms with several psychiatric disorders, including depressive symptoms, anxiety, and low self-esteem. While in and of itself, social media is harmless when used in moderation, it often times exacerbates the pre-existing insecurities especially when users develop a comparative complex. According to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, exposure to “ highly idealised and unrealistic representations of peers on social media elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier, more successful lives”. A 2015 study on the effects of Facebook use on mental health, researchers at the University of Missouri also discovered that regular use could lead to signs and symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy and jealousy in the user. Out of all social media platforms though, Instagram has been rated by young people aged 14-24, as the most damaging to mental health in a recent UK survey, BBC News reports.


It May Be Making Us More Anti-Social

It may seem ironic but our active social media usage does not necessarily equate to having a more fulfilling social life. A recent global study conducted by Kasperksy Lab reveals that social media users are engaging in significantly less face-to-face interactions than in the past due to this newfound technological capability to constantly communicate and stay in touch online. In the study, researchers found that about one-third of people communicate less even with those physically closest such as their parents (31%), partners (23%), children (33%) and friends (35%).

In fact, these findings are nothing new as some of the first few academic studies conducted as early as the 1990s were already documenting how Internet use affected social relationships and participation in community life. In one research, the authors found that increased time spent online was linked to a decline in communication with family members, as well as the narrowing of the Internet user's social circle, further associated to increased feelings of depression and isolation.