Adverse Effects of Social Media on Mental Health

Introduction

The information contained on social media sites and the internet may communicate content that may adversely affect the psychological health of the users. Social media sites make it effortless for people to share information about themselves. Some of the shared information may potentially be harmful to other social media user’s mental health. In spite of the mental health concerns that may arise from the use of social media sites, it is also vital to consider the opportunities that exist in exploiting social media as a tool for enhancing mental health. Instagram has grown into a ubiquitous part of the lives of many young adults. It may thus be necessary to evaluate some of the pathways through which the social media site could mitigate some of the adverse effects and use its infrastructure to advance the wellbeing of the users.

Problem

Various research papers have been prepared on the negative effects of social media on the mental health of users. Park et al. (2017) in their paper explain that pro-anorexia posts on Tumblr that have an affective tone are shared more widely, creating the possibility that other users will be exposed to posts that promote anorexia. Users may often share images of their emaciated selves, thus presenting a positive image about anorexia, despite the condition’s harmful effects on the body. Park et al (2017) further elucidate that social media sites do not have powerful algorithms to sort through some of the posts that may contain harmful information. The absence of effective approaches for filtering the information means that vulnerable users may be influenced into adopting the unhealthy behaviors that other social media users perpetuate through their posts.

As an indicator of the perverseness of the problem, Lewis et al. (2010) enumerate that 90% of non-character videos and 28% of character videos on YouTube include instances of self-injury. The situation is exacerbated by the observation that 58% of the videos that contain instances of self-injury do not provide a warning to the user on the content. Lewis et al. (2010) and Whitlock, Powers and Eckenrode (2010) describe that the videos my normalize self-injury. Further, Igor (2014) notes that social media may sometimes lead to depression as people get an inaccurate perception of the traits of other people. Users may feel inferior to other users, leading to the development of low self-esteem.

Analysis of previously attempted solutions

Various solutions have been previously adopted in attempting to deal with the challenges that social media creates in protecting the mental health of users. Hawn (2009) describes Hello Health, a startup company that has committed itself to provide mental health services through the use of various social media and internet channels. The company uses social media sites and email messaging to provide mental health consulting services to users. The model that the company has adopted shows that it is possible to provide mental health care through social media sites if the required structures are put in place.

May and Pagoto (2017) in their report describe that social media can be used to enhance mental health of the users in various ways including improving access to information on public health, addressing the spread of inaccurate information, rallying people to shift public policy on mental health, collaborating with mental health, and enabling research. It is possible to use a combination of the various approaches identified or individually implement some of the suggested strategies to address mental health issues among social media users

Social media provides vast opportunities to collect information and disseminate it to the people that require it. Social media education campaigns can aim at enhancing the awareness of the people on various mental illnesses and the approaches required to handle the mental conditions. Disseminating information on mental health reduces the probability that some of the susceptible users may be misled by some of the posts that other people make. Preventing the spread of false information guarantees that people do not get access to information that may adversely affect their health. False information that presents a positive perspective of various mental illnesses creates the probability that some users may inadvertently adopt harmful behaviors. Further, researchers are using social media as a research tool to better understand the mental health conditions that people face. Using social media in research will further enable the development of better approaches of combating the challenges that it creates in the delivery of mental health services.

Another approach that has been attempted in combating the negative effects of social media on the psychological health of the users is providing support to people that exhibit signs of mental illness. Whitlock, Powers, and Eckenrode (2006) elucidate that previous research has shown social media interactions provide the opportunity to offer social support to vulnerable people including adolescents. Whitlock, Powers, and Eckenrode (2006) further describe that adolescents can be discouraged from continuing or adopting self-harming behaviors through peer support. The drawback, however, is that negative behaviors may be normalized, thus encouraging self-harming behavior.

Another alternative that has been explored is providing channels through which people can seek professional intervention whenever they identify a person that may be at risk. Fu, Wong, and Yip (2013) concur with Whitlock, Powers, and Eckenrode (2006), describing that the responses of other media users may be of assistance to people that are struggling with some psychological problems. Fu, Wong, and Yip (2013) further add that other social media users can call for help if they discern that one of the users may be contemplating suicide or engaging in self-harming behavior. The article shows that authorities in China have set up hotlines through which social media users can call for help on behalf of some of the other at-risk people that they interact with. Setting up channels through which people can seek professional assistance is a means of mitigating the risk of some of the users not seeking assistance, choosing to instead use social media as a means of releasing pent up pressure.

Moreover, it has been considered that social media provides a wide variety of information about the mental wellbeing of the person. Choudhury et al. (2013) describe that people share a lot of information on social media. People regularly update information on their pages. Choudhury et al. (2013) describe that analyzing the social media activity of the users over a significant duration, for instance, a week may provide clues on whether the person is undergoing a period of mental health challenges. The analysis enables a prediction on whether the social media user is experiencing depression. It then becomes possible to implement interventions within a reasonable period of time.

Key recommendations

It is essential that social media sites develop algorithms that filter content that may contain material that may adversely affect the mental wellbeing of the users. Lewis et al. (2010) describe that 50% of the videos on YouTube that contain portrayals of self-injury do not provide a warning that could potentially alert the users. It shows that social media sites are yet to adopt effective approaches to filtering the videos. It would be essential for Instagram to develop algorithms that can automatically identify videos and images that could contain injurious material. Access to the videos for vulnerable population groups such as adolescents should be restricted.

Apart from restricting access to material that could potentially be harmful to the users, it is vital to provide information that encourages the adoption of a positive lifestyle. May and Pagoto (2017) majorly focus on the role of information dissemination as a key role of social media. Instagram should develop a program to share information on maintaining one’s psychological wellbeing through adopting a positive lifestyle. Sharing information on mental health would enhance the awareness of the users on how to overcome the adverse effects of some of the inadvertent exposure to harmful information. Instagram should collaborate with mental health experts and service providers to create mental health awareness among social media users.

Furthermore, it is necessary to modify Instagram to make it adaptable to users that may be predisposed to developing mental health problems. In this regard, Balani and Choudhury (2015) propose an algorithm that detects self-disclosure instances among social media users. The algorithm can be used in enabling the delivery of psychological therapy to people that are determined to be at high risk of developing mental health problems. Social media users share a significant amount of information about themselves, and which amounts to self-disclosure. The algorithm would enable the identification of people that require mental health interventions. Instagram should consider adopting a similar algorithm to guarantee that users that require psychological health interventions are accurately identified.

It could be challenging for Instagram to deliver mental health services to the users that require it without the assistance of trained professionals and experienced organizations. Consequently, Instagram should consider collaborating with institutions that offer mental health interventions. It could then be possible for Instagram to assist the users that are identified to be mentally troubled. The algorithms while being effective at identifying at-risk people may not provide interventions on their own. Instagram could adopt a system similar to that which Hello Health implements. Hello Health uses social media as a channel for communicating with clients that require mental health assistance (Hawn, 2009). Instagram should implement a similar system.

Conclusion

While social media sites create various challenges to the mental health of the users, the sites also provide opportunities for addressing some of the mental health issues that the users experience. Social media exposes the users to information from anonymous sources that may not provide accurate information. Vulnerable population groups may be easily influenced to adopt negative behaviors. It is vital that Instagram adopts approaches to address the challenges identified. The filtering of the content to restrict access to potentially harmful material is a prerequisite. It will protect vulnerable members of the population from exposure to information and content that could be destructive to their mental wellbeing. The use of computer algorithms that analyze the information that users share on their pages is one of the most effective tools. Analyzing the information will enable the identification of people that may be experiencing mental health challenges, thus requiring assistance. Instagram should provide assistance through disseminating information on how to live a healthy life and protect oneself from developing mental health issues. Further, collaboration with established institutions and trained professionals is a prerequisite. It will guarantee that users that are at high risk of developing mental health issues are assisted.

 
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