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Social Media’s Dark Side

In a candid interview, Dr. Zoya, a renowned clinical psychologist, unveils the psychological impact of excessive social media use. Discover her expert advice on fostering responsible online habits for improved mental well-being

The constant exposure to curated content, comparison and cyberbullying are identified as significant contributors to increased stress and anxiety levels among users.

In an exclusive interview with the news agency, Dr Zoya, a noted clinical psychologist, said that society grapples with the consequences, and there is a need for responsible social media use and platform regulations. Here are excerpts from the interview:

Social media, while we think that it’s something we enjoy, its excessive use can fuel anxiety, depression, addiction, isolation, sadness, dissatisfaction with one’s life or one’s appearance, and cyberbullying. Mental health disorders, human interactions, and face-to-face interactions are known to reduce stress and improve mood. But nowadays, as social media interactions are prioritised over in-person relationships, this puts you at risk for developing or exacerbating mood disorders, especially anxiety disorders, as you will be more conscious of facing the world in person.

Discontentment with one’s life, whatever we see on social media, somewhere we know it’s not real. They can still make you feel insecure about your looks and discontentment with one’s life and envy and jealousy towards others. Social media addiction and fear of missing out on social media can compel a person to check the phone every few minutes without any notification or will make one reply compulsively to messages.

If we talk about cyberbullying, social media is a platform that nowadays is being used for spreading hurtful rumours, lies, and abuse that can leave long-lasting emotional scars on the person being bullied.

We all can get affected by social media, but adolescents, minorities, and girls are more vulnerable to negative impacts due to social media because they are the ones who are targeted more in bullying.

Social Media's Dark Side

Excessive and inappropriate use of social media can affect our mental health. Instagram reels and Facebook posts are always a glamorized version of people’s lives. We post the best things, something fancy we saw, places we went, and that often creates a sense of discontentment in others who are seeing the posts. Social media can create a lot of pressure to create the stereotype that others want to see and also being as popular as others. Being addicted to social media means you are missing out on real life, and family interactions, and moving more towards a sedentary lifestyle which leads to isolation, differences/disputes in the family, and less growth as an individual, which in the long term causes anxiety and depression. Social media puts you in an open space where bullying can happen. Offensive and inappropriate comments can cause anxiety, and self-image issues, and can lead to depression and isolation as well.

Social media acted as a protector of mental health during COVID times. If we highlight its positive aspects, it helps us connect with loved ones. It also helps us in raising awareness and can be a valuable source of information.

Online social interactions can be healthy but at the same time it’s not censored, there are no restrictions on whom we are connecting to, and what sort of people they are. So, it can lead to trauma, body image issues, anxiety, depression, and fear and negative consequences with legal harm.

These lead to mental health issues. Cyberbullying and online harassment create an environment where individuals may witness persistent negative interactions that will lead to heightened stress levels. The most dangerous factor, i.e., anonymity, can amplify the impact, as victims may feel helpless and unsure of the aggressor’s identity. This constant exposure to negativity can contribute to anxiety and depression, impacting one’s self-esteem and overall mental well-being. Moreover, the feeling of being socially isolated or targeted can worsen these issues.

There are no particular time limits, but balance is advised where social media usage is not overpowering your work, academics or personal life. For healthy mental health, it is advised to keep your phone aside when sitting with family, having meals, or when at work. Limit screen time as much as possible.

This question may look unreasonable to many, but the reality is it does affect our self-esteem and body image. Like I mentioned how we showcase the most idealized version of us and a lot of people see that content. They may unconsciously start comparing themselves, inducing a sense of dissatisfaction with the way they are. The filters available on social media distort reality, causing self-image issues in the person uploading the content.

Heavy social media use can affect attention span and the ability to focus. It also can affect cognitive flexibility, i.e., the ability to adapt to new information and tasks.

Social media is like air; it’s everywhere. We can’t stop it; we can’t hide from it but we need to develop skills for breathing it safely. There is no one rule for all kinds of things when we talk about interventions but some healthy steps can help us to prevent and decrease the negative impact of social media on mental health.

The healthy tips include: Setting limits for using social media, being selective about what content you or your child is watching or engaging in, going on digital detox mode on weekends, prioritizing real-life connections over reel-life connections, making a call or meeting over coffee instead of sending memes, staying away from emotionally triggering content, developing offline habits like going on a walk, gymming, painting, reading, etc., working individually on one’s positive mental health and accepting individual differences.

Parents need to psycho-educate their children about understanding the good and bad of social media. We all focus on teaching how to deal with it, but what needs to be taught is ‘how not to be a bully, and how not to shame others. Individual differences need to be discussed and taught at the school level. Someone can be tall, fat, slim, dark, fair, or anything; we need to impart the sense to children that these are different attributes of a person and none of these aspects define normal and abnormal. Individual differences in regard to emotional responsiveness, social nature, and academic capabilities need to be taught as well. Support groups should be created where people can openly talk about it in schools and colleges. (KNO)

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