Perseus: Social media needs more humanity

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In 2019, Emersys reported that an estimate of 3.2 billion people around the world use social media, with people spending on average more than an hour-and-a-half on social media every day. With the use of social media being so widespread, it is not surprising that Ofcom, the United Kingdom’s regulator for communications services, found that 45% of adults in the United Kingdom get their news from social media. With many countries experiencing a resurgence of Covid-19, social media is a vital tool for people to keep in touch with each other, as well as stay connected with the wider outside world.

However, the benefit of social media in allowing people to keep in touch with each other is not without its darker side. An article published by the United Kingdom’s Nursing Times in February 2020 indicated that a 2017 study “found a link between use of multiple social media platforms and increased depression and anxiety symptoms in young people aged 19-32, although it did not establish a causal link.” A 2018 study cited by the same article stated that there were “associations between screen-based activities and mental health problems in children and young people, but again concluded more research was needed into cause and effect.”

Social media has been linked to issues relating to fear of missing out (“FoMO”), as well as negatively impacting on people’s self-esteem. A 2017 study by Singles in America found that 57% of people found that social media has generated FoMO, 51% of people indicated that social media made them self-conscious, and 48% of people said that social media made them regret doing or not doing something.

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Dr Tim Bono, a happiness researcher and psychologist, wrote in Healthista that even before social media, “one of the fundamental barriers to our well-being is social comparison. … Within moments of logging on to social media we have instant access to others’ accomplishments, vacations, job promotions, home upgrades, and culinary creations.”

Dr Joel Yang of the Mind What Matters Clinic in Singapore told Channel News Asia, for an article published on 29 June 2019, that the young people he sees are usually depressed, self-harming, or suffer from anxiety. Social media only serves to exacerbate their conditions due to impossible standards set by social media, a by-product of users pushing a heavily curated and artificial feed which bears little resemblance of the ups and downs of real life.

As social media users continue to post and feel the need to chase “likes”, self-esteem issues can arise if their content does not garner the attention of the social media community, or does not generate enough interaction or response from other users of the social media platform. Upon a fresh log in into one’s Twitter account, the feed presented by default is the “top tweets” feed, as opposed to the latest tweets feed. This perpetuates the problem of some people’s tweets possibly being missed, and not attracting any interaction, due to the platform’s own algorithm of picking what is considered a “top tweet”.

As well as FoMO and the negative impact on self-esteem through social media usage, there is also a risk of secondary trauma through following news feeds. A 2017 paper by Casey Comstock and Judith Platania, published by the Roger Williams University, highlighted that “exposure to violent events and the subsequent feelings of distress have the potential to influence our day-to-day activities.” A 2015 study cited by the paper indicated that nearly a quarter of people who took part in the survey reported that they felt “significantly affected” by the media’s depictions of violent events. To put this in a real context, the paper cites a study from 2002 which analysed the mental health impact on those who had witnessed the events of 9/11 via the media. The study found that there was the number of hours spent digesting media coverage on the 9/11 attacks was a significant factor of probable post-traumatic stress disorder.

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Talking about mental health issues can be hard, and whilst some people prefer to talk to people, they know, there are also many who find a better outlet by talking to people they do not know anonymously, such as via social media. The lack of interaction which some people may experience may impact on their willingness to continue opening up, as well as negatively impacting on self-esteem as touched upon above.

There are a lot of societal stigmas still surrounding mental health issues which may also act as a barrier for people to talk about their problems. A failure to recognise that other people may face the same problems can also act as a factor in causing people in holding back from talking about their own mental health issues.

My friend, May King Tsang, who is a social media consultant, once told me a few years ago that social media feeds need to have a more human feel. May King said to me that people often feel more connected with a feed that show work in progress, or even mistakes, rather than only showing off the polished final product. I did not understand that piece of advice at the time, but realising all the mental health impact which social media can cause, the penny has dropped.

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Perseus (a pen name) is a Hongkonger based in the UK. He is a freelance photojournalist and writer, as well as a human rights and public law lawyer practising in London.


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