In this series of public health articles, you will be able to learn about the fundamentals of public health which will serve you well for your medical school interviews. These principles will help you to understand how medicine and public health are intertwined especially as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic.
With increasing technological advancements and globalisation of the world, social media has hugely grown within the last decade.
Worldwide statistics show that in January 2020 approximately 3.6 billion people were using social media of some kind. That is almost 46% of the global population.
Platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube play a central role in all aspects of our lives. From connecting with people and accessing information to creating businesses and creating social change, social media has many uses and benefits for everyone.
However, there is a dark side to social media which has been at the forefront of news and how it is affecting the mental health of users, particularly young people aged 16-24 who are the highest users of social media. From a public health and medical perspective, this is something very important to investigate, understand and manage.
The Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) and the Young Health Movement published a study in 2017 reporting the positive and negative effects of social media on young people’s health in the UK. The study suggests that young people who spend more than 2 hours on social media are more likely to report poor mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Social media can feed a lot of anxiety and feeling of inadequacy when young people see other people’s social media lives.
There is a ‘compare and despair’ attitude amongst young people on social media that can bring out feelings of low self-esteem, self-consciousness and pursuit of perfectionism which can result in psychological distress.
In extreme cases, using social media extensively can also lead to depression, also termed as ‘Facebook depression’ by researchers, which can lead to suicidal ideations in extreme cases. Poor mental health is linked with poor sleep, which in turn affects your mental health even more. This creates a cycle of poor mental health which people can find very difficult to come out of. Poor sleep is also associated with a range of physical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, heart attack and stroke.
Social media has made communication much easier. Connecting with friends, family and other like minded individuals around the world can have a very positive impact on mental health.
However, there is also a dark side to social media where people can be victims of cyberbullying. Bullying in childhood can have long-lasting effects into adulthood, including poor mental health. Statistics show that around 37% of young people experience cyberbullying on a high-frequency basis. These statistics are possibly under-estimated due to the fear and stigma surrounding bullying with many young people not wanting to report incidents.
The types of posts and interactions people have on social media can also influence mental health. Studies suggest that posting about feelings and venting out predicts low mood and self-esteem, whereas posting about daily activities predicts increase in positive effects and self-esteem.
This information can be used for interventions around social media mental health where individuals can be given information and therapy around how to interact with social media and what types of activities will help improve mental health.
Where social media is linked to poor mental health, the same social media can actually be utilised in interventions to tackle poor mental health by improving communication, awareness and education around mental health.
There are many steps, interventions and programmes that should be put in place for young people who are social media users. The RSPH calls for the use of a pop-up warning message on social media when users go beyond the level of usage deemed potentially harmful. This would alert users of when they should limit their social media usage allowing them to make an informed decision.
There should also be dedicated education programmes in schools for young people around how to use social media safely, the privacy and security options that are available and the potential dangers of social media.
With evolving technology globally, the education system must also evolve to tackle these real-life issues young people face.
Further, mental healthcare workers should have digital media training which would include how to tackle mental health conditions caused by social media usage.
Overall, social media can have positive effects on mental health, however, we are witnessing a rise in depression, anxiety and low self-esteem in young people who are high users of social media, particularly Instagram which has the most negative influence.
Mental health programmes and interventions must incorporate the aspect of social media and have adequately trained healthcare workers. Social media is at the forefront of all aspects of life and healthcare systems should evolve to incorporate the influences of this.