Over the last few years, the influence of social media has dynamically changed the way in which we live and interact with each other in today’s fast-paced, digital world. Many businesses have had to change the way they communicate and reach the masses due to this digital communications metamorphosis. The influence of social media platforms is far-reaching, connecting about half of the world’s seven billion-plus population with constant media flow . Current statistics for the year 2020 show that of the more than five billion unique phone numbers registered, over 70% of these were active social media users .
Many have attributed these figures with the benefits social media, or social networking sites (SNS), provides, especially during the current COVID-19 pandemic . However, despite the social advantages these mediums provide, there have been several studies showing the correlation between social media usage and mental health problems , , .
Social networking sites have been around for nearly the past two decades . Particularly in the later half, their usage has really excelled and grown in popularity. This has triggered a change not only in the communication-information ecosystem, but also influencing the way consumers and producers of information, news, knowledge, and entertainment carry out their roles .
For much of the past century, information was generally received from a television set, radio, or a local newspaper. Nowadays, information is readily accessible simply by typing a search item in any browser on any device – smartphone, tablet, or a computer . With the growth and dominance of social media platforms as a wealth of information and knowledge outflow, they have become direct competitors with media and journalists as communicators of information .
The development of this technological marvel has not happened without careful study though. In 1998, Kraut published one of the first studies on the influence the Internet had on social relationships and participation in community life . Though this study was based on simple Internet activities such as Internet browsing, checking email, playing video games, and other activities, this study indicated a decline in communication with family members as well as a reduction of the Internet user’s social circle . These figures were seen to increase the more time was spent online, and consequently, increased feelings of depression and loneliness were observed .
The question raised then is, ‘does social media have any benefits to it?’ This question is debated in many articles. Some supportive of the view that it is beneficial, while others stating the increased state of mental health problems faced by research subjects . It has been shown, that people who use social media may benefit from the social connections established , . Being socially connected to others can reduce stress, feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression, and boost self-worth , .
A survey carried out in 2018 showed that 31% of adolescents believed that social media had a mostly positive influence on their life . They were able to stay connected with their peers, friends who do not live nearby and were able to get the social support they needed .
The many benefits of social media extend to provide the opportunity to also make new friends, join or promote worthy causes, find vital connections in a remote area, find an outlet for creativity and self-expression, and discover valuable sources of information and learning .
Social media does have its mental health benefits. However, when not careful, the opposite was also shown to be true for active users of social media.
In addition, the use of social media was shown to promote negative experiences such as an inadequacy about life or appearance of the individual; the fear of missing out (FOMO); feeling of isolation from others; increased depression and anxiety; being cyberbullied, and being self-absorbed .
During the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, many individuals had to rely on social networking sites to keep in touch due to the physical restrictions in place. A study was conducted during this period to assess the severity of depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms among undergraduate students and their relationships with social networking sites usage during the pandemic . A cross-sectional descriptive study, was carried out via self-reported questionnaires from the 456 participants recruited online . The results showed that the majority of the students had symptoms of depression (74.1%), anxiety (59.6%), and stress (61.2%) . Female students had higher depression and anxiety rates . The use of social networking sites for academic and entertainment purposes were evidently associated with increasing psychological distress symptoms after controlling for demographics . Interestingly, the use of SNS for entertainment purposes during the pandemic was associated with increased symptoms of stress and anxiety, while the use of SNS for academic purposes was associated with lessened psychological distress .
The relationship between social media and mental health problems still remains a largely debated topic. As aforementioned, studies have shown the positive benefits of social media usage. And correspondingly, many studies have also shown the many negative effects of social media usage. Since the rise of social media’s overwhelming influence is a recent occurrence, there is still much research needed to provide an overwhelming bias toward one view. However, research does suggest that social media usage may be an influencing factor for negative mental health problems .
A study conducted in 2020 revealed that people who deactivated their Facebook accounts for a month reported lower depression and anxiety, as well as increased satisfaction in life and general happiness . That should not imply that we all should deactivate from social media, but rather be more aware of the factors driving our social media usage and avoiding unhealthy practices . The decision now comes back to us individually. With access to these social networking sites just a click away, how do we make the most of it while minimizing the negative influences?
According to HelpGuide, there are four steps we can take . The first is to reduce the amount of time spent online . The second step is to change the motivation of using social media platforms . There must be a purpose of use and not purely out of habit or just to pass time . The third step is to spend more time with offline friends . Face-to-face company is still the healthier means of socializing . Lastly, step four is to express gratitude in your life . Self-reflection and thankfulness go a long way toward nurturing high self-esteem and confidence in one’s self-perception .
Children who use social media at a young age have been shown to have social development issues later on in life . Parents, therefore have to be careful in educating and monitoring their child’s activity as they also learn to use social media .
All-in-all, the far-reaching influence of social media mustn’t be ignored. It has changed the way modern businesses and individuals communicate and interact in today’s digital age. One thing for certain is that its usefulness is undeniable, however, it is still a double-edged sword that may do more harm than good if we are not careful.
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