Alright. Let’s sit down for some serious talk. It’s time to address the elephant in the room. So where do we start?

South Africa has really taken to social media. Research shows that over 31 million South Africans spend over eight hours online every day, a third of which is spent on social media. Click To TweetToday, our country has become the second biggest internet-addicted country in the world, after the Philippines.

While social media has helped improve trade, economics, healthcare, education, culture, and art in South Africa, the country is also experiencing a very negative consequence that shadows excessive social media usage – its impact on mental health.

 

The consequences of socializing online – Social media & mental health

 

The objective of social media is to help users become more social. It is designed to serve as a platform where people socialize and build relationships. And granted, while it has achieved this objective, it has done so in a skewed manner.

Social media facilitates only online interactions and not physical interactions between people. This has resulted in an isolating effect, where users feel alone and cut-off from the rest of the world, despite knowing so many people; causing a very negative impact on users’ mental health.

The problem, many scientists believe, starts with the lack of real social skills in social media users. Many social media users possess only online, tech-savvy skills, but no real social interaction skills. When faced with actual human-to-human interaction, most social media users do not know how to interact with another individual. This translates to their inability to make real friendships or start lasting relationships with other people. Such, in turn, increases feelings of anxiety and low self-worth and this along with a lack of meaningful physical, social interactions results in feelings of depression overtime.

 

Here’s an interesting depiction of the reported impact on well-being with Britain social media users back in 2017.

An image of social media mental health stats

 

Let’s also delve into body image. A study by the University of Pittsburgh showed that people who spend more time on social media were 2.2X more likely to suffer from eating disorders and low self-esteem than others Click To Tweetwho spent lesser time on social media. They were also more susceptible to body image issues because of the negative feedback they received from their “friends” online. This vulnerability to body image issues could also go as high as 2.6X more for people who spent most of their day on social media.

 

In fact, studies done on the psychological effects of social media on mental health reveal that negative feedback isn’t necessary to create feelings of low self-worth and depression in individuals. A complete lack of feedback from peers can achieve the same results.

 

These days, there is a quest for constant validation from strangers. That’s why people spend so much time and effort posting the perfect selfie, the perfect quote, and the perfect message online. But when they don’t receive a certain number of likes/shares on their posts, many social media users are left feeling dissatisfied, hollow, and useless in their personal lives. This is one of the most pervasive and damaging social media effects on mental health.

 

 

Affecting offline relationships as well

 

Social media has also been observed adversely affecting the offline, real, physical relationships of users as well.

Many social media users spend more time trying to show the world how perfect their life is, instead of living in the moment. This takes away the personal time and leaves behind no time or energy for personal interactions. It also creates a disconnect between family members, which again increase feelings of resentment and loneliness.

 

According to a survey by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyer, one in five divorces in America is the result of excessive social media dependence by one or both spouse/s. The reality is similar in other countries, including South Africa.Research displayed that social media dependence is one of the reasons why many South African couples between the ages of 18 and 35 are finding it harder to stay married beyond five years. Click To Tweet

 

Social media and depression

 

We’re in a digital era where most pre-teens and teens have access to a smartphone. In South Africa alone, over 22 million people have smartphones, with access to social media. While the highest social media penetration was by the 31-40 age group, this was followed by the 13-18 age group – a group of highly impressionable individuals.

Excessive usage of social media leaves behind little time for personal interactions. It’s been found that the lesser people interact with real, physical people, the lesser emotionally fulfilled they will be in their offline lives. Their need for superficial validation and acceptance increases, which, in turn, leads to feelings of depression when this need isn’t met.

A US 2017 study showed how increased dependence on social media led to an increase in feelings of depression by 33% in the 16-18 age group. Suicidal tendencies and suicide rates in teenage girls increased by 65%.

 

Some of the signs of depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness, anxiety or emptiness for longer than two weeks
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of or excessive sleep
  • Lack of energy
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless, negative, irritable and desperate
  • Suicide ideation – experiencing involuntary thoughts about suicide

 

We also have to talk about cyberbullying – one of the greatest dangers of social media.

Research depicts that South Africa is one of the most affected by cyberbullying in the world. In a study of 28 countries, South Africa ranked 5th in the number of cyberbullying cases targeting children. This has become one of the leading causes of teen depression and suicide in South Africa.

 

Changing bodies

 

One of the biggest dangers of social media is how it changes the biology of the individual.

Social media gives users easy access to infotainment, irrespective of what time of the day or night it is. Staying awake at night to browse through timelines and pages can mess up the circadian rhythm of the body and result in amnesia. This lack of sleep can make people more jittery, irritable, and quick-to-anger. It can also affect their concentration and memory. Together, these symptoms make people more anxious about their well-being, especially when they do not understand the connection between social media & mental health.

 

Barely wrapping up

 

Social media & mental health are interconnected. The only way to reduce the negative impacts of social media is to take proactive steps to monitor and curtail the time spent on social media and to ensure that content on social media is positive and safe for consumption. This is also an on-going talk that needs to be tackled continuously by parents, schools, workplaces, government and all crucial role players – we’re far from saving grace.

 

 

 

Help is available:

 

  • Lifeline 24 hour crisis line: 0861 322 322
  • SADAG Helpline: 0800 567 567/ or sms 31393; www.sadag.org