High numbers of university students are paying a mental health price for bingeing on social media and research shows problems range from depression and low self-esteem to even a phobia of being away from their smartphones.
Not all the effects of social media are bad, but studies show the need to help people at risk of social media addiction.
An online survey of 622 university students from China, Taiwan and Malaysia found those who used their smartphone and social media excessively were also more likely to experience mental health conditions.
In particular, students experienced greater levels of nomophobia — fear of not having an operating smartphone at hand — and weight-related self-stigma — where someone devalues themselves because of weight concerns, usually that they are overweight.
Symptoms of weight-related self-stigma include low self-esteem, low confidence and negative emotions.
Another study of 380 students from Malaysian universities found that high levels of social media use were associated with students experiencing greater levels of depression, anxiety and stress.
In the first study, participants on average used social media for 4.8 hours a day and more than 40 percent were identified as at risk of having a social media addiction.
In the second study, participants averaged 4.5 hours a day on social media and more than one-third were defined as at-risk of having a social media addiction.
Youth and young adults are particularly susceptible to the impacts of social media because they are the biggest users of social media.
This isn’t always a bad thing.
The benefits of social media use have been widely studied.
Specifically, social media can help people express love and compassion.
People use social media to increase their social networks, overcome loneliness and foster a feeling of belonging.
It can also compensate people who crave or need company but can’t physically interact with their close friends or family members.
In those areas, social media use can be seen to have mental health benefits.
However, when social media use becomes excessive, research shows problems can emerge and potentially lead to negative mental health outcomes for adolescents.
Excessive use of social media is when an individual cannot control his or her craving to use social media.
They will spend substantial time using social media, which can cause difficulties for them in other areas of their life. For example, they might not be able to engage in productive work to earn a living.
Excessive use of social media can be measured using the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale, a six-item self-report scale that is a brief and effective psychometric instrument for assessing at-risk social media addiction on the Internet. A score of 24 or above on the scale suggests a person has a social media addiction.
The bottom line from all this research is that people should promote the healthy use of social media so that individuals can learn how to use it properly and purposefully.
Transparent information on the links between healthy and excessive social media use and mental health could be widely shared.
People could self-administer the Bergen Social Media Addiction Scale to work out if their level of usage is becoming or already problematic.
Governments could prepare programmes for people to access in community, clinical or self-managed settings to help them manage their social media use.
These could be lifestyle redesign programs that help addicted youth and adults plan daily activities in advance as a way of reducing their craving for social media.
Summer, winter and holiday camps could also be held where participants learn about other activities that could replace unnecessary social media use.
Workshops on coping with stress and how to implement time management in daily life could also be introduced, together with cognitive behavioural interventions that could help people identify when their craving for social media is unhealthy.
Dr Chung-Ying Lin is an associate professor at the Institute of Allied Health Sciences at National Cheng Kung University, Taiwan and an adjunct research fellow at the Biostatistics Consulting Center, National Cheng Kung University Hospital, Taiwan and at INTI International University, Malaysia. His research interests include mental health, addictive behaviours, quality of life and applied psychometrics.
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