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Saturday, December 4, 2021

Social media, addiction and mental health


The world’s largest social media platform suffered its most significant outage last week. 

WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram recently went down due to an unexpected and shocking hours-long global outage

As a result, this led to a range of reactions, tweets, and timely memes. While people may enjoy spending a good portion of their time online, there is no doubt that social media ultimately has an effect on the behaviour of users. 

It is human nature to require a sense of belonging, as well as innately want and need to relate to others. However, simultaneously, people require a sense of autonomy and uniqueness from others. 

With a focus on the inter-relation between technology design, human requirements and behaviour, as well as digital addiction and digital wellbeing, Dr. Raian Ali, Professor at College of Science and Engineering, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, states:

Social media has provided tools for social interaction including comments, likes and shares. This can empower information sharing, expressing oneself, and also boost relatedness.” 

As a result, social media offers the ability to meet this desire on an ongoing basis, to keep us linked to others. 

Read also: Hilarious memes flood Twitter as competitors Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp blackout.

Social media has evolved into more than simply an online platform; it has become a place where individuals routinely check in and spend a significant amount of their time. 

“Social media has the potential to enable us to express our own personality in a way that demonstrates uniqueness, belonging, and most importantly: empathy,” Dr. Ali tells Doha News.

While it offers people the opportunity for self-expression, this also poses an important question: would electronic means of communication ever be accepted as a safe and healthy substitute for face-to-face social connection in their current forms? 

Dr. Ali states that it is important to keep in mind certain factors, such as whether or not humans are created to stay socially connected on a continuous basis – an option offered by social media – the amount of social interaction a person individually needs, and if hiding has become a luxury in the digital age. 

As a result, Dr. Ali questions whether we should ever “accept the interfaces provided and their symbols as a normal way for human interaction”.

Read also: Google Cloud eyes plans to enrich digitally-skilled workforce in Qatar.

Through extensive studies, he notes that despite the new advances in emoticons and options available, such as ‘Like, Dislike, Love, Thoughtful, etc’ it is important to research and investigate if it is a healthy way for human interaction. 

This is because according to current research, this new alphabet causes confusion, sends mixed messages, and puts pressure on people to reciprocate and become more connected to social media in order to preserve their popularity and avoid being excluded. 

Emotional and problematic attachments to avatars and socially interacting artificial agents have also been investigated in studies.

So what exactly happened at Facebook and why did it take six hours to fix?

While there are some benefits to being online, such as interacting with friends and sharing helpful resources, there are also realistic behavioural concerns that stem from regularly spending time on social media. 

Dr. Ali mentions that whether knowingly or unknowingly, artificial intelligence algorithms influence users’ choice on who to socialise with and what content to engage in. 

“Although this can indeed be useful because we do want to hear more about close friends with whom we share similar views and interact often, it is necessary to be challenged and also to expose ourselves, as in real life, to different views and groups.” 

This means, above all, that people appear to have minimal control over what the algorithm considers a close friend, as well as how it determines customised design and content.

If you feel like you cannot get enough of being online, this is because social media uses a variety of persuasion design aspects to promote what he calls as “addictive usage”. 

Liking a post is simple, but this is because it is supposed to be. Dr. Ali says.

“One of these elements is called ‘reduction,’ which is basically the process of making things too easy to perform, and because of this, people feel inclined to do them.” 

Aside from this, he states that there is a need for social validation and it is a primary feature that social media platforms excel with.

This aspect also comes with high criticism because it persuades users to want the likes to feel better about their views or posts, and it provides them with more reassurance. Unfortunately, this adrenaline rush can also link to competitive peer comparison and narcissistic tendencies. 

Although social media does affect and alter behaviour, a lot of the current research relies on users to report about their usage of technology and their digital behaviour, i.e. self-report. 

According to Dr. Ali, such self-report suffers from various issues of accuracy and subjectivity, particularly when it comes from persons who have problematic digital usage habits. Part of the problem is their denial of it, and therefore their reporting of it. 

The solution? Dr. Ali recommends more open and in-depth research that is based on objective data coming from social media. 

For example, data should include content displayed and actions performed and their timestamps. Popular social media platforms should also allow users to seamlessly export such data to external services and software, in a timely fashion, whether for research purposes or even to monitor usage.

Chereen Shurafa is a mental health counsellor


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