September 18, 2019
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    Social Media:Should we be worried?

    June 20, 2019

    In the last fifteen years, social media has become an almost ubiquitous feature of our increasingly digitized cultural landscape, with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter now playing ever more significant roles both personally and politically.

    Of course, we have accrued significant and deeply meaningful benefits through the advent of social media. Indeed, it has become something of a cliché to note the extent to which we are now more interconnected than ever before in human history. However, there has also been alarm about the possible costs that accompany the reshaping of our digital lives, especially with regard to the effects this shift may have on children.

    Parents have traditionally had worries about their kids spending too long consuming media on technological platforms and not enough time on other activities, such as schoolwork or spending quality time with family, with television previously occupying the position that the internet does today as the object of parental frustration. However, anxiety about social media is not just a result of established worries, with the emergence of newer and more complicated issues that intersect with these conventional concerns. The rise of social media has coincided with a greater mainstream awareness about mental health in the last decade. As such we have seen heightened distress about the interaction between social media and children’s psychological well-being.

    Many are concerned about this issue but are left unsure as to how exactly social media impacts their children’s health. Is there genuine cause for concern, or is the panic with regard to social media unfounded and alarmist? To find out, the Daily News looked at the medical literature on the subject and spoke to Dr. Miyuru Chandradasa, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist who lectures at the University of Kelaniya’s medical faculty. We also spoke to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka to find out what activities they were conducting in relation to this issue.

    Different conclusions in the Medical Literature

    In the last few years, a body of research has emerged suggesting that social media use in children has the potential to induce harmful effects. For instance, a study released earlier this year in the Lancet indicated that social media use is correlated with a number of depressive symptoms such as self-loathing, feelings of hopelessness and loss of interest and energy.

    In recent months, however, the picture of social media as having a straightforwardly and significantly negative impact on children’s mental health has been challenged. A study published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the impact of social media on life satisfaction in children was ‘tiny’, arguing that there has been an ‘over-interpretation of trivial trends’. The study has created some uncertainty about what the effects of social media on mental health actually are, during a time in which, the authors argue, the subject of social media is ‘characterised by overhype in the press’. With studies on the subject delivering conflicting results on the effects of social media use, many have been left understandably confused as to how we ought to respond.

    Correlations and reasons for caution

    Dr. Chandradasa, who has spent his career researching and tackling such issues with his patients, acknowledges that measuring the damage inflicted through problematic social media use is not straightforward. Despite these considerations, he argues that the evidence that we do possess strongly suggests that social media use is associated with a number of risks, making it be sensible to be cautious about its use. On Chandradasa’s account, our inability to prove, without doubt, that there is a causal link should not prevent us from taking prudent precautions, especially given the extent of the correlation observed between mental health problems and social media use.

    He notes, “Even though there is an increasing number of studies investigating mental health issues in relevance to using social media, some common problems persist. Analysing large, high-quality datasets of social media users with a mental disorder is problematic. This is not only due to biases associated with the collection methods but also with regard to managing consent and selecting appropriate analytics techniques for the study…. The use of social media and the pattern of use is highly variable. Therefore, it is very hard to study considering the psychological consequences are not directly proportionate to the amount of time spent on social media.”

    “There is emerging scientific evidence that certain individuals with vulnerable personality traits would develop psychological disturbances related to social media use. It is known that persons who present inauthentic versions of themselves on social media could be experiencing social anxiety or have maladaptive personality traits such as neuroticism and narcissism in them. Also, we need to consider the issue of vulnerable individuals using social media in a problematic way.”

    He continues, “The psychological impact of social media use which is evident on the incidence of depression, anxiety and psychological distress among adolescents is likely to be multifactorial. It is prudent to say that there is an association between social media use and psychological problems. However, the association is correlational but not conclusively causative.”

    In terms of the specific traits that problematic use of social media use is associated with, Chandradasa points out “Emerging research shows substantial mental health issues related to digital media use including social networks. These include worsening executive functioning such as attention and learning, a higher presence of depressive symptoms, aggressive behaviour and reduced sleep quality. In addition, physical health issues such as obesity and related complications are associated with excessive digital media use. In other Asian countries such as China, research has shown that negative affectivity and vulnerable personality are associated with expressing suicidal ideation on social media platforms. In Thailand which is a South East Asian country, research has shown that almost 42% of high school students surveyed in a high socio-economic region were found to have a Facebook addiction. This addictive behaviour was associated with anxiety, insomnia, somatic symptoms and depressive symptoms.”

    With regard to how problematic attachment to social media manifests, Chandradasa highlights that “Individuals using social media excessively may experience a constant urge to check their networks for new updates and notifications because of the significant fear of missing out. Youth with greater use may neglect other constructive aspects of their lives which could contribute to psychological distress. Probably social media dependent individuals crave social interactions and self-validation, and that compulsive online activity may generate stress.”

    Chandradasa also notes the ways in which the way the user experience of social media sites conditions a problematic psychological response. He points out “Updates and Notifications affect our brain’s reward area. It is like syringing dopamine straight into the system. When we experience something rewarding (or use an addictive substance) neurons in the principal dopamine-producing areas in the brain are activated, causing dopamine levels to rise. Therefore, the brain receives a “reward” and associates the drug or activity with positive reinforcement. For this reason, activities which increase dopamine levels are the basis for the mechanism of addiction. The dependency on social media is similar. However, in my opinion, the word ‘addiction’ is not that helpful in bringing people for much needed professional help. So, the term problematic social media use is more attractive.”

    Online Mental Illness Communities

    In addition to the problems highlighted by Chandradasa; on websites that older parents might not be as familiar with such as Tumblr and Reddit, the relationship between engagement with content on these platforms and psychological well-being becomes even more complex. This is in large part due to the simultaneously helpful and harmful nature of mental illness communities on these sites.

    In many ways, these communities can provide support in terms of their ability to allow young people to come together and share experiences with others who understand their experiences without fear of stigma. The microblogging website Tumblr, in particular, has become a popular and even celebrated platform for these kinds of discussions as having sub-forums on websites like Reddit. A 2018 study by the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (U.S.A) looked at young people participating in online depression communities and found that those suffering from depression showed an increased ability to cope with depressive symptoms when connected and receiving support from others who struggle with the same issues on these online communities.

    However, studies also point to the possibility that the openness and support that comes with the destigmatisation of certain taboo behaviours may inadvertently create the conditions for an endorsement of them. A2011 report in the Journal of Youth Studies notes the extent to which participation in some of these communities actually glamourizes and thus compounds certain mental health problems. The study looked at online mental illness subcultures on the Tumblr in which harmful behaviours are normalised and even romanticised within certain corners of the community. It gives the example of Tumblr communities such as the ‘thinspo’ and ‘pro-ana’ (pro-anorexia) communities, which have a detrimental impact on young girls with regards to issues of body image. In such spaces, acts of self-harm often come to be seen as tragically beautiful, creating pathological patterns of behaviour in the young people who participate.

    As such, whether or not social media use will be harmful to your child also has a lot to do with the specific types of communities they are engaging with online. With all this in mind, though moral panic about children’s social media use as a general category is unlikely to be useful, this is not to say that parents must take a laissez-faire approach with regard to social media. Rather, parents must be observant of the ways in which their children engage with social media and aware of the possibility of the kinds of negative influences highlighted above, paying attention to which communities they are engaging with and the kind of behaviour they encourage.

    What should be done?

    There is no one size fits all approach with regard to social media use that will be suitable for every child. However, Chandradasa notes that there are a few things parents must be on the lookout for. He notes, “Parents need to be vigilant of the use of social media by adolescents. They need to monitor the frequency, type, nature and intensity of the use. There need to be clear rules and guidance on this at home. Any violation by the young person of these rules should lead to negative reinforcements and loss of privileges. However, significant dependency requires professional help by a mental health expert such as a child and adolescent psychiatrist.”

    Chandradasa also highlights the need for companies and governments to take their share of responsibility with regard to constructing policies that mitigate the possible psychological threat that social media poses to children. He notes, “The governments need to enforce clear ethical guidelines for social media companies. The companies need to be transparent in their policies and guidelines. Health services need to fund specific research to assess the impact on young people of a certain socio-cultural setting.”

    These issues have not escaped the attention of regulators in government. With the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka (TRCSL) conducting a number of awareness programmes with the aim of dealing with some of the potential harms of social media use by children. A spokesperson from the TRCSL noted that “It is inevitable that children are going to want to use platforms like Facebook. It is important to note that there are a lot of benefits to these platforms, however, what we need to focus on is preventing misuse of these platforms, teaching children to use it in a safe way.”

    “Beginning in 2017 we coordinated with school principals and started conducting awareness programmes in schools, we went to schools and gave presentations teaching children about the possible dangers of social media misuse. We focused on issues like not talking to strangers on social media as well as warning them about sharing personal information online. We also focussed on avoiding harmful habits, for instance, using social media on their phones before going to sleep. We’ve also conducted lectures for Grama Niladharis, so that they could raise awareness about these issues in their communities, to let them know about the kind of things that are happening.”

    As the TRCSL notes, social media is not going away anytime soon, nor would we want it to; however, we must be mindful of the role it plays in the emotional lives of young people and the possible damage it may cause. In doing so, we must find a middle ground between unhelpful alarmism and being callous about the issue, in order to ensure the psychological safety of young people in our society. Until the picture becomes clearer, we must be attentive and empathetic, helping young people to deal with their emotional distress and observant of the ways in which this distress may interact with their digital worlds.

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