5 Ways to Protect Your Mental Health with Social Media
Words by Celeste Goh
Even before the global pandemic had us on lockdown in April with nowhere else to turn to but our mobile devices, an estimated 3.81 billion people were already on social media. Unsurprisingly, it is widely believed that extended use of social media can cause negative effects, but the numbers could surprise you.
In a recent survey, 25% of surveyed adolescents agreed that social media had a mostly negative effect, with 13% of those aged between 12 and 17 reporting depression, and 32% reporting anxiety. In the 18 to 25 age range, 25% of them reported that they were suffering from some form of mental illness. To top it off, 72% of the surveyed respondents admitted that they have been cyberbullied at some point.
This undoubtedly, led researchers to suggest that “this increase in mental illness is, at least in part, connected to the rise of social media use among adolescents and young adults.”
“I work with a lot of teenagers, and they usually come in and talk about body image issues because of social media,” clinical psychologist Thong Shu Yi mentions. “There was a time when you just go to school and compare yourself to the few other people at school, but now the kids are faced with criticisms from the entire world, which can make you feel really bad about yourself.”
We speak with Shu Yi further on how parents and adults dealing with the younger generations can protect their mental health when it comes to interacting on social media.
Understand how social media works as a reflection of a projected world
Before parents or adults can protect the younger generations from the negativity of the internet, they must first minimise the gap between the generations, by learning to understand or perceive the internet world or social media the same way as the younger generations.
Shu Yi states that by the time we – the Gen-Xers and those before – are introduced to it, we are already older, and we have already had a taste of our own reality offline. Whereas for the younger generations, they exist in a world in which the internet and social media are very much present, and could very well be the reality to them.
“How we look at [the internet and social media] is very different to the younger generations, and it makes it harder for them to separate what is real and what is posted on social media. To them, what’s posted online equals reality,” she explains. “To us, it’s common sense that what’s online is not reality, but to these kids, they actually need to be shown and taught that it’s not reality. They need to be guided that there is another world beyond that.”
“By first having that understanding, it will allow us to empathise with the younger generations more,” she adds. “When we’re able to empathise with them, then they will feel like they can listen to us, rather than dismissing us by saying: ‘you don’t understand’.”
Be mindful of who you follow on social media
Part of the reason why we are so caught up in scrolling through social media mindlessly, is to do with validation. Shu Yi mentions that ironically, it’s a basic human instinct to not want to be wrong; and when we feel sad or anxious, we will always look for things to confirm what we are feeling, and people who feel the same what we are feeling to let us know we are not alone in all of this: “We take to the internet with the desire to seek understanding of ourselves, what we are going through.”
Thanks to the internet, children these days are more resourceful. When they have questions, they don’t go to their parents anymore; they go online. Therefore, it’s very important the kind of information they get, for the severity of how negative thoughts manifest themselves, really depends on what kind of resources they are getting to understand those thoughts.
“Rather than taking [social media] away from the children, it would be better to teach them how to screen profiles,” Shu Yi advises. “If someone wants to follow you, before you approve, you might want to check the person’s profile, and see if there are any red flags they should be mindful of.”
“At the end of the day, adolescents are looking for role models, especially at their age, and you don’t want to stop them from doing that by forbidding them from getting an Instagram account,” she continues. “We can instead help them identify which people they should follow to empower themselves.”
Comments from others are more of themselves than us
The more time we spend on social media being active and vocally involved in what we see, the more susceptible we are to negative comments from people out there who may not necessarily agree to our point of view on things. It is even more so for children and adolescents who have yet to come into themselves, and who are constantly seeking for relevance and understanding from the internet; due to their vulnerability, they are more open to attacks online.
According to Shu Yi, adults can educate kids and teenagers that whenever they hear someone say something negative to them, rather than very quickly absorbing that as the truth, they might stop and think that maybe what the commenters said isn’t really about them.
“When kids use certain vulgar words on purpose to hurt the other kids, they have to be victims of those words themselves,” she explains. “They are people who are wounded, and they have to carry within them all these emotions, and they don’t know how to express them so they become angry.”
“Bullying is a thread: if I’m bullied, then I will feel I want to bully another person, and that person will want to bully the next, so on and so forth,” Shu Yi adds. “If we can help the younger generations understand that when somebody says mean things to them, it just means that the ones saying them are hurting as well. This way, the bullying won’t continue on.”
Take ownership of your social media accounts
Countering these negative comments from strangers on social media is as easy as familiarising yourself with the privacy functions available on each platform. The functionalities of blocking, deleting and unfollowing certain profiles come in handy in situations like these, and everyone needs to be empowered to do so.
“The younger generations might think that if they unfollow or block certain friends, what would their friends think of them? This is where the adults come in – the parents, older siblings and teachers. We should teach them that it’s their right and prerogative,” Shu Yi says. “At the end of the day, it’s our social media account. If we think someone is being mean to us, and they are affecting how we feel, then it’s our prerogative to block or unfollow those people.”
Shu Yi also advises that for parents with children met with negativities online, especially from people they know, they should first and foremost pay attention to their own children: “Sometimes, out of wanting to protect their kids, parents may be quick to call on the school, or the other kid’s parents on how he/she is behaving. However, to the kids, it might translate as an embarrassment, rather than protection.”
“Instead, the parents can focus on the child’s wellbeing: how they are impacted by the incident, how it makes them feel, how the parents should emphasise with their children, and what they can do to help their children begin the process of healing,” she adds.
Take a break once in a while to keep ourselves in check
Since the popularity of the internet grew in the 1980s and early 1990s, which eventually led to the creations of interactive computer-mediated technologies that we have come to know today as social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and many more, we have inadvertently developed a relationship with our gadgets. Pair that with the advances of mobile devices to make it more convenient for us to be constantly connected online, the gadgets have somehow become a friend that’s stuck onto our palms, and that we cannot put down.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with being connected to what’s happening around us all the time, it is when we are not mindful of how much time we spend scrolling through our social media feeds, that we may gravitate to things that make us feel worse. This is what many these days may call “doomscrolling”, an act of consuming an endless procession of negative online news. It is also a word that has gained popularity and awareness during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially when countries go into lockdowns, and many have nothing else to turn their attention to at home but to the news feeds on our social media.
Shu Yi mentions that while it is very difficult to take some time off digitally, we may be able to sidestep the negativities online by enriching our life beyond the virtual one: “If you notice that when you’re busy, or if you’re having a very engaging conversation with a friend, you don’t actually think about your phone or wanting to scroll through your social media feeds. That’s because you are entertained by what is in front of you.”
“When we want to take some time off our gadgets, we need to make sure that we’re doing something that gives us joy,” she adds.
Whether it’s joining the “lockdown trends” of baking burnt cheesecakes or sourdough breads, joining Zoom yoga or workout sessions; or just simply reviving offline pastimes you have been putting off every time because of your busy schedule, such as reading, gardening or journaling – anything that brings you joy is helpful, because it takes your mind off the phone while you’re engaging in such activities.
“The worst thing a child imagines they can feel is to be bored, and parents need to teach their kids how to keep themselves occupied beyond the only world that they grew up knowing – the digital world,” Shu Yi says. “Creating activities for them is always very useful, even for the adults. It relaxes your mind, and your energy is focused on the activity.”
“I do think that once in a while, we need to come back to what’s in front of us, so that we don’t disappear into the virtual world,” she adds.