Tough spaces: How social media worsens mental health problems

29 May 2023 09:08am
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX
Image for illustrative purposes only. - FILE PIX

KUALA LUMPUR - Jenny, a journalist who declined to be named for safety reasons, was never a heavy social media user. But when a story her team did in 2020 at the height of Covid-19 incited backlash from netizens, she deactivated her social media account to preserve her mental health.

"The harassment was quite overwhelming. We had a lot of netizens commenting on social media pages,” she said. "There were death threats. People were doxxing us and putting our office address on Facebook and threatening to burn down the office, coming to kill us.”

She did not feel safe, she told Bernama.

Luckily, and perhaps ironically, the Covid-19 lockdown that may have contributed to the netizens’ over-zealous reaction to the story she and her team did, also kept her safe.

Because she was not required to go to her office, she never crossed paths with any would-be vigilantes, who were also required to shelter at home. But her mental health was a different matter. As such, she avoided social media and laid low as much as possible.

After a two-year hiatus, she is back on social media. Despite feeling apprehensive, she decided that she had to return because of work.

"I also have a public Twitter profile because it helps verify my authenticity as a journalist, especially when I’m reaching out to potential sources,” she said, adding she tries to keep social interactions online to a minimum.

Jenny’s story encapsulates our new reality. For good or worse, there is no running from social media, even though it creates unsafe environments for some of its users, and can make mental health problems worse.

Studies have linked social media use with causing anxiety and depression. While Malaysia does not have exact statistics on mental health issues and their link to social media usage - the latest statistic is from a Ministry of Health (MoH) study published in 2015 - experts believe the number of mental health problems has increased along with the social media use.

During the height of the pandemic, social media use skyrocketed as people were required to shelter at home as a way to curb infection spread. In 2022, We Are Social and Hootsuite, a marketing firm that tracks digital trends, found that Malaysia was the sixth country with the highest Internet usage at 9 hours and 4 minutes and they were mainly for messaging followed closely by social media.

According to Kepios, which analyses social media data and internet usage, as of January 2023, there were almost 27 million social media users in Malaysia, which accounted for 78.5 per cent of the population. It notes that the number is increasing.

Although the pandemic lockdowns are over, the time spent on social media remains largely the same, according to digital marketing firm Meltwater. Malaysian users spend two hours and 47 minutes per day as of January 2023, 15 minutes less than in 2022.

According to a Malaysian Mental Health Association report released in October 2020, the incidence of mental illness among Malaysians reportedly doubled during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Health Minister Dr Zaliha Mustafa told Parliament that MoH recently screened 336,900 people for depression or anxiety as part of a study and found that Kuala Lumpur has the highest number of people with psychological distress.

She said many of them were from the B40 class and urban poor group.

"Financial concerns and relationship issues are among the causes of mental health issues,” she added.

Social media affects people’s mental health negatively in a multitude of ways. While Jenny’s case is clear cut, feeling anxious and fearful after receiving death threats, others develop mental health issues just from the way social media works.

Experts told Bernama that social media tends to aggravate any dissatisfaction or frustration people have with their lives, finances or relationships, and contribute to feelings of worthlessness and anxiety. In other words, social media exacerbates the ‘Keeping Up with the Joneses’ mindset, where people feel they have to compete with others and show they have succeeded in life.

"When you keep having this kind of perception about other people, how other people lead better lives than you, it may result in self-hate, worthlessness, and in general, lower self-esteem,” said Kow Kwan Yee, a Communications and Media Studies lecturer at University of Wollongong-KDU in Shah Alam.

Psychologist Assoc Prof Dr Rozaina Kamsani from Universiti Utara Malaysia agreed, saying that the envy and jealousy make many vulnerable mentally and also causing them to be easier targets for scams. Some also may lash out and attack posters, instead of internalising their feelings of inadequacy.

She also said the way social media algorithms are set up, which rewards engagement and anything that attracts attention, be they good or bad, pumps up users into a constant state of anger or outrage. This is not good for anyone’s mental health in the long run.

"The interaction tends to be very provocative. It will take a long time to take effect....It stays in the head and they’re not able to get it out of their head,” she said.

Given the anonymous nature of the internet, some interactions become very combative, allowing harassment to proliferate and creating a feedback loop of negativity. Prolonged harassment causes anxiety and depression among its victims, as well as low self-esteem, loss of self-confidence and withdrawal, said Rozaina.

Paradoxically, too much social media increases feelings of disconnection and isolation. Experts say the lack of non-verbal cues contribute to mental health problems and the feeling of surrealism, unsure of whether what and who people see and interact with online are really real.

This messes with people’s minds in many ways.

Kow, who is a former journalist, said humans are social creatures and when they are deprived of non-verbal communication, it leads to loneliness and other problems.

"It seems like we are communicating with each other and connecting but the physical communication with friends and family has been reduced,” she said.

"When we communicate with each other, it’s not just about the words or visual communications. Like our facial expressions, gestures, even hugs, or touching each other when we comfort each other, that actually counts,” she added.

Social media is unlikely to go away, as the younger people are full adoptees of the platform. Countless studies on adolescents and young adults and how social media affects them have elicited mixed results, with some finding the negative effects minimal while others significant.

Young adults Bernama talked to said they considered themselves somewhat inoculated against the ill-effects of social media in certain ways.

"For us youngsters, because we grew up with social media and grew up with this kind of technology, that’s the reason why we are so aware of what is real and what is fake,” said Kiefer Chor Fu Zhung, a 23-year old student at UOW-KDU in Shah Alam.

However, he admitted feeling insecure when he sees posts that show people living their best life, travelling to exotic locales and eating at fancy places, as well as trusting influencers.

Expressing concern over excessive social media use, experts suggested that users unplug every once in a while to hang out with friends and family physically or to engage in physical activities or hobbies. People should also take mental health days for self-care and take a break from negativity.

Despite returning to social media, Jenny said she is afraid of being attacked online again. Consequently, she drew up a game plan to ensure her safety online and protect her mental health before reactivating her social media accounts.

"That’s just how it is now. Staying off is not an option because we need social media to communicate,” she added. - BERNAMA