Thursday 25 December 2014

How social media is hitting mental health

Published 03/07/2014 | 02:30

People's attention is being absorbed by hand-held devices.
People's attention is being absorbed by hand-held devices.
Eoin Whelan

Picture this. A group of friends are out socialising together in a bar. The important issues of the day are being trashed out. What should happen to Luis Suarez? Where are the best clothes sales in town? But these discussions are not happening between the friends sitting inches away from each other. Instead, each person's attention is absorbed by whatever handheld device connects them to snapchat, Facebook, twitter and the like. The conversation is flowing, but just not in the real world.

You probably don't have to try too hard to picture this scene. It's a regular occurrence nowadays. Perhaps you have even participated in such a scenario. Sherry Turkle, a professor of social science at MIT, has coined the phrase 'alone-together' to perfectly describe this illusion of companionship permutated by advances in technology.

Just look around the next time you are on the LUAS or waiting in the doctor's surgery. What you will see is people engaging with a computer screen while ignoring the presence of those beside them. This is us being alone-together. But is there any harm in this behaviour? Well yes, there is. The consensus from emerging research is quite clear. Social media is having an adverse effect on our mental health.

Here's an example from one of my own studies. The millennial generation, those born in the 1990s, are often accused of being narcissists. They have an inflated sense of self-importance and a pre-occupation with one's self. Watch the auditions for shows like the X-Factor and you will witness millennials exhibiting these traits down to a tee. Many are convinced they are the next Mariah Carey or Justin Timberlake, despite never taking a singing lesson in their lives. Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a serious mental health issue which causes much grief for the sufferer, as well as their family and friends. But could there be a link between NPD and the use of social media? To find out, I gathered data from 130 of my undergraduate students. The analysis revealed a clear pattern. The more time a student spent on social media, the more likely they are to exhibit the symptoms of NPD. Adding in exam performance data exposed another insight. Despite the exaggerated confidence in their capabilities, narcissists tend to perform poorly in exams.

But these findings should not be interpreted to mean social media causes NPD. All my study shows is that there is strong link between the two. I can only speculate as to the connection between using social media and NPD. People who are already a bit narcissistic probably find Facebook and its ilk too tempting to resist. Why limit to telling just your friends and family how superior you are, now you can broadcast your accomplishments to the whole world. Indeed, one could not design a better tool for amplifying narcissistic tendencies.

Observe the Facebook page of your typical millennial and narcissism is easy to spot. It screams "look at me, look at me." The profile picture is probably posed. A good proportion of their photos are selfies. Updates occur every few minutes with vital information such as what they currently are watching on TV. Constructing an ideal version of oneself, which can be quite removed from the real self, is what social media is all about. Recent studies are illuminating how such behaviours are destructive to mental wellness. One study showed that heavy social media users are constantly anxious. We see these people every day, repetitively checking their status or newsfeed. Too preoccupied with what might be happening online, they are unable to live in the present. Another study considered the association between a students' self-esteem and the amount of time spent on Facebook. Again, the results are worrying. Students who were more involved with Facebook were more likely to think other people's lives were happier and better. Maybe they don't realise that their friends are just as obsessed with portraying a fictitious Facebook life.

So should we throw our smartphones off the nearest bridge and disconnect from the Web altogether? A dramatic act but not really an option in today's world. Concerned about the distractive nature of computing devices on students, I have tried to enforce a gadget free policy in my lectures. But it doesn't work. Asking undergrads to go one hour without their gadgets is akin to torture. Anxiety creeps in and they are unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes. Technology is not going away and we have to learn how to evolve with it. So I have to figure out how students can use their devices in my classes in ways conducive to learning. There are a multitude of apps enabling participation in classroom debates. I have found these to be quite effective in helping maintain engagement, particularly in large classes with over 400 students. Also, allowing a short technology break every 15 minutes, where they can check in on their devices, provides a sort of psychological comfort and helps alleviate smartphone distraction.

The Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of this world design their products and services to be as addictive of possible. The more we use, the more data we give them, and the more revenue they can generate from our data. But too much social media can be bad for us. It can exacerbate pre-existing mental conditions.

Much like our on-going wars on smoking and fast food, I can foreseen a day when a health warning will accompany Web services - too much social media can be bad for your mental health. But in the meantime, we all need to modify our own use of communication technology. Being alone-together is not a pleasant prospect for the human race.

Eoin Whelan is lecturer of Business Information Systems Group at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business & Economics in the National University of Ireland, Galway.

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