On World Mental Health Day, Dr. Erin Valentine, a Clinical Psychologist at Qatar Foundation’s Sidra Medicine, shares her expertise on the negative implications of overusing social media and smart phones on our mental wellbeing
Do social media and smart phones do us more harm than good? Finding the answer is becoming increasingly urgent – as is determining their impact on younger generations.
Social media and smartphones have both positive and negative effects on our mental health, behavior, and overall wellbeing, and there is plenty of research that backs this up
While the effect of social media on mental health and behavior has been an ambiguous area in the early stages of its emergence, it was not until the world became flooded with platforms that the true nature of its influence became clear.
Minds and hands have became invisibly chained to a piece of technology the size of a person’s palm, but with the power to control desires, self-esteem, and sometimes dreams. But does it allow people to retain the original version of themselves, or risk turning them into virtual avatars?
Two sides of the coin
“Social media and smartphones have both positive and negative effects on our mental health, behavior, and overall wellbeing, and there is plenty of research that backs this up,” said Dr. Erin Valentine, a Clinical Psychologist at Sidra Medicine – a member of Qatar Foundation – about the pros and cons of social media and smartphones.
“It definitely helps us stay connected to friends and family who are far away: sharing our triumphs and joys, connecting to important causes, staying informed, and having access to work and even treatments that are not available through traditional means. Having a smart phone means you have a tiny computer in your pocket to communicate and access information easier all the time.
“But, as with everything, there are two sides to every coin, and there are negative effects to smart phones and social media when it comes to our behavior. Negative effects associated with high engagement in social media in particular include the addictive nature of needing to staying constantly connected, and basing one’s self-esteem on the feedback received in this medium; and phones and social media being used to avoid in-person interactions or negative emotions.
“What is also problematic is that smartphones can interfere with engagement in other pleasurable in-person activities, disrupt social activities, and increase some people’s experiences of anxiety.”
There have recently been sobering studies and statistics about the link between depression and the overuse of social media, and this stems from several factors – starting from the social comparisons which are spontaneously induced by scrolling through these platforms, to the Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO, feeling it generates, to the loneliness, inadequacy, and low self-esteem it can cause.
“Not everybody is prone to fall in this trap; there are wide variations in how people use their social media, so not everyone will suffer from the same effects,” said Dr. Valentine.
“But certain groups, like adolescents and people who are already at risk of isolating or being isolated, anxious, or depressed, and who also have unhealthy social media use will experience more of the negative effects of social media on their mental health.”
The constant shifting, and sometimes contradictory, information flowing by a person is likely to cause them to feel overwhelmed more than anything else
Another vital area in which social media affects mental health is the emotional confusion people are left with after passively skimming through diverse information feeds in a matter of a few seconds: a joke, followed by news about death or disaster, an advertisement for a concert, then the latest updates about how COVID-19 is transferred, for example.
“The constant shifting, and sometimes contradictory, information flowing by a person is likely to cause them to feel overwhelmed more than anything else, as we don’t take the time to process each item and the emotional impact each has on us,” explained Dr. Valentine.
“This constant flow and variety in content may also start to lead some people to feel emotionally blunted, as they simply can’t process everything they see and so they simply stop trying.”
The risk of addiction
The negative impact of social media overuse doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a complex process that can slowly turn from a habit to addiction. Being more aware of our level of involvement and engagement, as well as monitoring the time we spend on social platforms, is key to preventing this.
“Science says that talking about yourself and sharing things on social media ‘lights up’ or activates the reward centers in our brain and chemical pathways, in the same way as any addictive behavior,” said Dr. Valentine.
“The reward centers in our brain give us positive reinforcement to do more of the thing that feels good, so we keep doing it, and then we need to do it more and more to keep feeling good. Social media has the ability to lead people to seek an endless amount of this positive feedback, by posting more and sharing more all the time, to an almost endless audience.
“In real life, we only have one or two people, or a small group of people, from whom we can get positive feedback at any given time, but with social media people can seek out more and more people to give them this positive feedback about themselves, which is addictive on a biological and emotional level.”
Social media and adolescence
Adolescence is already a sensitive and complicated phase in life. A teenager’s personality and identity is still in the making at this stage, as they explore the world as well as themselves. An overwhelming era of mass media doesn’t make it any easier for them.
The teenage years are a time of self-exploration and self-definition. This is a turning point in life for many people, and social media use by today’s adolescents definitely impacts this time of development
“The teenage years are a time of self-exploration and self-definition,” explained Dr. Valentine. “This is a turning point in life for many people, and social media use by today’s adolescents definitely impacts this time of development, again in both positive and negative ways.
“Research tends to show many negatives for teens and social media use, like more negative self-comparisons, increased risk of depression, or just feeling not good enough, and smartphone and social media use definitely negatively impacts sleep, which is so important in the teenage years.
“Developmentally, the teenage years are a time of searching for your identity. Social media now allows teenagers to cast a wider net in that search, but what they haul in through that net may not all be good or helpful for them. As teenagers try to be their authentic selves, they may compare themselves against unrealistic – and truly fake – images of others. And as they try and take control and learn what to expect and what is expected of them as emerging adults, they may be overwhelmed and confused with all they find online.
“One of the most worrying areas today in terms of teenagers and social media is that teenagers often make a lot of quick, irrational decisions, because of the biology of their body and brain at this time in their life. This has always been true. Yet their decisions, and how they share them online can be unfairly amplified by social media and harder to take back because of the permanent nature of the Internet.
“This is really a difficulty that today’s teens have that no other generation of teens have had before them.”
How parents can help
Parents have a key role to play in monitoring and managing their children’s use of social media and smartphones to minimize any harmful impacts on their physical, emotional and mental health, according to Dr. Valentine
“First and foremost, parents must have some say and control in their children’s use of smart phones and social media,” she said. “Children and teenagers cannot be expected to always make healthy decisions about their use of smart phones and social media on their own - they need parents to help them make these decisions. We have parents for a reason; they are there to guide us and teach us about the world, and that includes electronics and social media use.
“Parents should limit children’s smart phone and social media time, discuss what is and is not appropriate content to access and share, implement parental controls however much they trust their children, and monitor and talk to their children regularly about what they are seeing and doing online. And they should lead by example in how they use their phones and social media.”