Researches show that spending too much time on the internet is related to developing anxiety and depression; however, social media also has positive effects. Understand the global behavior change caused by them and know how to take advantages of them

“I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it”, or “having my phone closer to me while I’m sleeping is a comfort”. This is the typical language of addiction. In this case, social media is the cause for addiction. Both statements were heard by Jean Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, in the US, and the author of “The Narcissism Epidemic” (Free Press, 2010).

In an article published on The Atlantic magazine, Twenge said that people who overuse the internet are prone to depression and anxiety – according to the UN, they account for 3.6% and 4.4% of the world’s population, respectively. The World Health Organization (WHO), linked to the UN, affirms that depression is the greatest “evil of the century.”

Twenge’s conclusion is based on the latest research on the subject published by the Royal Society for Public Health, an English non-profit organization that has been studying public health improvements for more than 140 years. The study heard 1,500 British youths aged between 14 and 24 years old and reported important data on the impact of social media on their lives. Overall, most of these young people believe that using Facebook, Instagram and other networks is bad for their well-being, although these platforms also contribute positively to their lives.

According to the survey, social media addiction is thought to affect around 5% of young people, and it is described as more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Another study conducted by neuroscientists of the University of Southern California and the Beijing Normal University, among others, and published in the 2014 edition of “Psychological Reports”, concluded that Facebook triggers the same part of the brain as gambling and substance abuse.

Leaving behind the fleeting pleasure of “likes” and interactions is difficult even in cases where young people feel bad. An online poll conducted by Moment, a monitoring app for smartphones, asked 1 million Instagram users if they were happy with the time spent on the online platforms: 63% of those who spent more than an hour a day in the app reported unhappiness. Apple’s FaceTime, an app that makes calls and promotes longer and personal interaction, such as Skype, Microsoft and Google Hangouts, has performed better: 91% happiness among its users.

According to the research, Instagram is the biggest villain of young mental health: it is related to sleep problems, FoMO (Fear of Missing Out), bullying, anxiety, depression, solitude and body image. “I want to be what I see in the other. Many images are treated in Instagram, but when we observe them, we do not instinctively notice this, and the image of perfection, impossible to achieve, remains on our minds,” explains Luciana Ruffo, from the Psychology Research and Computing Center of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Núcleo em Pesquisa em Psicologia e Informática da Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo – NPPI-PUC/SP), and a specialist in technology. “But that’s not real,” she says.

Jovem triste em rede social. Crédito: Alex Iby/Unsplash

According to the Royal Society for Public Health survey, the problem is most apparent among girls: nine out of ten report they are unhappy with their bodies. Compared to boys, the negative effect is impressive. Among boys, 27% already felt excluded on the Internet, against 48% of the girls. Regarding depression and anxiety, the difference is even higher: between 2012 and 2015, symptoms increased by 21% among boys and 50% among girls.

Social media is also a place for happiness

Claude Fischer, sociology professor at the University of California at Berkley, who has been studying analog and digital social media since the 1970s, says there is some exaggeration in attributing mental health problems exclusively to social media. In a piece published in the Boston Review, he even argues that social media works to improve the social skills of their users.

Fischer mentions a study by the Pew Research Center that shows the social use of the tool beyond digital boundaries. According to the survey, among people who use smartphones to post photos or videos, 45% do so from social gatherings, and 38% do so to get relevant information to their social groups. Overall, 78% of respondents say they use their digital social media to strengthen ties with their community – not to isolate themselves.

The Royal Society for Public Health research also highlights how social media helps community-building. The feeling of belonging, information about health conditions, emotional support, self-identity, and self-expression are other factors developed, especially on Facebook and Twitter, the survey says.

“When I want to post something, I think about the image I want to show on the network. I build my image and my speech to my followers. Even if they are few, they like my interactions: this positive feedback makes you feel like expressing more,” explains Ruffo, from NPPI-PUC/SP.

According to another study, produced by Carnegie Mellon University, the exchange of positive messages, posts and comments are significant elements of social support for people who feel lonely or with symptoms of depression – the positive effects were even stronger when the contacts were between close friends. Although status updates, likes, and superficial interactions are not enough to generate well-being, active engagement and meaningful interaction effectively do well.

Cause or consequence of psychological illnesses?

“What a strange practice it is, when you think of it, that a man should sit down to his breakfast table and, instead of conversing with his wife, and children, hold before his face a sort of screen on which is inscribed a world-wide gossip!” Thus said American sociologist Charles Cooley in 1909 – over a century ago. The object, in question, was neither a smartphone nor an iPad, but the newspaper, which Cooley identified at the time as responsible for the end of the conversation.

“What a strange practice it is, when you think of it, that a man should sit down to his breakfast table and, instead of conversing with his wife, and children, hold before his face a sort of screen on which is inscribed a world-wide gossip!”

– Charles Clooney, American sociologist, in 1909, about the newspaper

Jornal queimando. Crédito: Elijah O'Donell

Every new technology, especially those related to information and communication, is welcomed with a mixture of euphoria and mistrust. The newspaper, radio, and television went through similar questions. Some said that they would lead to the end of reading, others said that they would be objects of mass idiotization. To this day, there is a heated debate, with arguments for and against such theses. The intensive use of social media goes through the same process. But there is an aggravating factor, which makes the phenomenon somewhat more disturbing.

Today, psychic disturbances affect the well-being as never before.

In the UK, three in every four adults have been diagnosed at some point in their life with any of these disorders. These diseases have an annual economic cost of about US$ 112.5 billion, or 4.5 of the country’s GDP, given the 2016 record. And in the US, rates of depression and suicide among teens skyrocketed since 2007, 30% between boys and 100% between girls – today, there are more cases of suicide than homicide among 15- to 19-year-olds in the country.

In an article, Jean Twenge reports that teenagers who spend three hours or more a day using electronic devices are 35% more likely to develop a suicide risk factor. “A lot of this can be attributed to their smartphones,” she says. One of Facebook’s co-founders, Sean Parker, admitted that social media works by “exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology.”

“It’s like that cookie advertisement which says: Does it sell more because it’s fresher, or… Is it fresher because it sells more? You can’t tell whether this circumstance exists because of smartphones or if smartphones exist because of this circumstance,” says Luciana Ruffo. “Society is more self-centered nowadays. We feel a huge pressure. Work demands a lot. There is more violence. It’s hard to live in the cities. Depression is the evil of the century due to several issues, and social media is one of them,” she says.

The tool has changed human behavior, and no one says the contrary. Especially among the young ones.

According to Twenge, American studies evidence a “longer” childhood. That is, teenagers present patterns of behavior consistent with their age groups, such as driving, going out without family, and dating, increasingly late. “18-year-olds now act as 15-year-olds and 15-year-olds, like 13-year-olds. Childhood now extends to High School,” she says.

In an interview to Veja magazine, Susan Greenfield, a specialist in brain physiology at the University of Oxford, said that American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 spend, on average, more than 30 hours a week on the internet. “It’s four or five hours a day not walking on the beach, not hugging dear ones, not climbing trees, in short, not doing all the things that children usually do,” she said.

Greenfield also says that in extreme cases, when people spend up to 10 hours daily in front of a screen, there is a strong incidence of brain abnormalities. “We see an alarming increase in ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. We know that the prescription of drugs like Ritalin, used for ADHD, has tripled [in the US],” she reports.

Detox: a healthy way to use social networks

The Royal Society for Public Health research suggests some measures to reduce the negative consequences of using social networks. Among the solutions, we can find the introduction of digital and social media in youth education, the adoption of overuse warning tools, and alerts for photos that have been digitally tampered meaning that what is seen is not reality.

Jovens na rede social. Crédito: PxHere

Some people even buy apps that limit the use of social networks on their smartphones. Control apps block access every 50 minutes using a tool. “You pay so they don’t let you use the internet. Why should people pay for something they could easily do, unless they are obsessed or dependent on that?” Greenfield questions.

According to Luciana Ruffo, that is a trace of obsessive behavior. But it doesn’t mean it is the result of contact with the Internet, but a general psychological pattern. “Social networks haven’t created anything, they strengthen effects that are part of the individual already,” she says.

5 tips for dealing with the misuse of social networks

Check out the recommendations of psychologist Luciana Ruffo, from the Psychology Research and Computing Center of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (Núcleo em Pesquisa em Psicologia e Informática da Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo – NPPI-PUC/SP):

Monitor your social networking usage
Observe when and how often you access social networks; understand how much they take of your time and how they affect your personal life.

Pay attention to your friends’ alerts
Listen when people around you – be they friends or family – tell you that you spend more time on digital than real interactions.

Watch your mood swings
See your emotions before, during and after using your social networks; do they provide well-being or do they trigger distress and anxiety?

Remember: reality is edited in networks
Understand that all posts are generally positive cuts in people’s lives and, therefore, it makes no sense to make comparisons.

Avoid exposing yourself and having arguments
Watch how much you expose your life online; if you don’t want to hear opinions or comments, avoid posts that may raise them.

Content published in August 29, 2018

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