Social Media – At the Cost of Mental Wellbeing

Lahore: She starved for months but she says she is still fat! “Why can’t I have the perfect body like all the models out there?” ,18-year-old Emaan could barely speak as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Please tell me what to do, it is killing me!” She asked her psychologist during one of several therapy sessions she took.

Emaan Azeem when healthy

Talking to Truth Tracker, Emaan Azeem shared her struggle with social media which most of the youth these days might relate to.

“I am suffering from anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder for 14 years of age and it all happened when I began using social media. It has affected me severely. I became insecure of my physique and looked up to the models and celebrities on SNS for a perfect body. Influencers on Instagram seem so perfect with flawless skin, ideal height and perfect physique which makes me want to kill myself. I starved myself and did rigorous exercise to overcome this insecurity.”

Emaan further told, “I fear that I may become lonely since I do not have many friends as other people on social media. This has become a poison for me and has affected me in a way that I cannot even describe”. There are numerous stories out there like Emaan depicting the deleterious effects of social media on mental health.

Emaan Azeem after starving herself

A 2017 survey of The Royal Society of Public Health, concluded that social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter created anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, exposure to cyber-bullying and body shaming, especially in young adults.  Sean Parker, founding president of Facebook had the following to say about the workings of the app, “by exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology”.

Similarly, a local study conducted by Arooba Amjad and Bushra Shafiq on SNS and social comparison in 2016, also concluded that increased use of SNS was related with higher social comparison among young adults. As people usually put their ideal portrayal on social media accounts, it tends to induce a comparison within individuals in terms of ability to other users.

Not only this, people are found to be using social media to overcome their insecurities. A senior psychologist Ayesha Sitwat said, “I have seen multiple cases of youngsters trying to project the things on social media which they feel insecure and incomplete about”. She further said that camera apps allowing people to use filters on their pictures to look perfect have had dangerous effects on the users as more and more people have become aggressively beauty conscious. “Rather than accepting one’s imperfections, people are absorbed in the virtual world of perfection”, says Aisha Sitwat. In this context, a study by Ayesha Butt (2016) states, “the more the individual feels frustrated psychologically in terms of autonomy, competence and relatedness, the more he/she is likely to use a smartphone or SNS to snub someone intentionally or unintentionally.”

The pic of model that Samman Amir imitated

To deduce what happens to the underlying neural structures of the brain, when exposed to social media, Researchers at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center, conducted the brain scans. The scans revealed that “likes” or appreciation on SNS activated the reward centers of the brain which are sensitive during teenage. This could explain why young adults are avid users and victims of social media. Another study reported more than 50 percent elevated depressive symptoms due to high social media use.

Truth Tracker got in touch with few social media users to discuss the effects of social media on personal and social life. Tooba, a university student, claimed that social media made her depressed, self-loathing, cynical, insecure and isolated to the point where she would rather not go through the trouble of having real life interactions at all. Samman Amir, another user, voiced more or less similar issues, “I get anxious, depressed, insecure and try to follow the trend immediately. I also faced online harassment quite a few times that made me panic”. Ayesha, while discussing the downside of social media said that these interactive media platforms have the ability to attract anyone and then there is a constant pressure to keep up with the vogue. When asked about the reason of constant social media use despite negative consequences, everyone typically replied, “due to peer pressure and fear of missing out.” Researchers have discussed this fear of missing out as a blend of inadequacy, irritation and anxiety which might flare up by skimming through Instagram, Twitter or Facebook etc. Instead of any occasional update, the users are now exposed to a massive influx of information round the clock which can translate quickly into social comparison. This fear of feeling left out keeps individuals from relaxing and feeling content. It can foster exclusion and victimization that subsequently leads to constant checking of devices at all times.

Truth Tracker also turned to the successful social media influencers and bloggers with thousands of followers, to see if they faced any similar mental health issues. Zarbaha Khan, a host on GNN News Network have gained quite a popularity on social media now. She vocalized that the struggle of keeping pace on social media is real. Today, the number of likes and followers on an account matters more than the real talent and abilities of a person. Thus, there is a constant stress of competing with others for popularity and bringing something novel every day, which creates anxiety and insecurity. The continuous worry deteriorates mental health and generates detachment from reality. Besides anxiety, the more fame also leads to self-obsession and feelings of grandiose. Gaining attention and approval from others becomes a consistent mannerism to a point where criticism cannot be handled. Another social media influencer, Mahrukh Talat, described social media as a necessary evil in the lives of today’s generation. She mentioned that there is always hate speech and yet there are people who desperately try to fit in other’s shoes but the thing that makes a difference is emotional maturity. Though it is a reality that such sites can make people depressed or self-absorbed, these sites can also be used in a constructive way.

In order to determine the graveness of the issue, the magazine interviewed Mubeena Munir, a Clinical Psychologist and Lecturer at the Department of Professional Psychology, Bahria University. “In my opinion, excessive use of social media is responsible for 70 to 80 percent of mental health issues in young adults,” She stated.  Mubeena alluded to the fact that routine use of social media creates a discrepancy or conflict between the ideal and real self of the individual which can cause mental health complications including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, eating disorders and even narcissism. She added that nearly every social media user suffers from degeneration of cognitive skills at various levels, for instance reduced concentration and problem-solving skills. Truth Tracker also inquired of Mubeena what steps could be taken to maintain a phone life balance, to which she replied that gradual reduction in screen time can prove effective for psychological well-being. She further mentioned that the major responsibility falls on parents to educate their children of the pros and cons of social media and limit their use of electronic gadgets until they become emotionally mature. Parents should also supervise the activities of children till a certain age to save them from peer pressure and feeling left out. Moreover, a special form of therapy should be introduced to deal with the escalating mental health issues associated with social media.

Though the advent of Internet and thereupon social media sites has initiated enumerable opportunities in terms of information, connectivity and even employment but the question arises, can we save our youth from the associated hazards or we would continue to do so on the expense of our mental well-being.

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