A: Hi, how have you been? I sent you messages on WhatsApp, it didn’t deliver. 

B: Oh, that’s true. I’m off social media for now. 

A: Really? Why’s that? 

B: My mental health is important but that has been suffering lately. So I needed to take a break. 

A: Wow, I never knew that was a thing. I mean, who takes a break off social media? 

B: Well, I do. 

Over time, there have been countless conversations about the detrimental effects of social media on its users. From addiction to stealing productive time, a lot of issues have been flagged as side effects of being on social media platforms. And the new situation on the block is tilting towards how social media affects mental health. Perhaps we should examine how we got here in the first place. 

Social media: a bane we can’t do without? 

Obviously, we rely on social media for a lot of things. From communication, entertainment, information to relationship building and influence establishment, you’d easily find people who today have successfully built their lives around specific social media platforms. The dependence and the instant gratification brought by social apps also make it difficult to detach from them. 

Globally, more than 3 billion people are estimated to be on social platforms. That’s about half of the world’s population. In Nigeria, the number of users keeps soaring. In 2018, there were approximately 29.3 million social media users in Nigeria; this number is expected to grow to 36.8 million in 2023. 

A report shows that while teens could spend up to 9 hours on social media daily, an average person spends nearly 2 hours every day on social platforms. Extrapolating and aggregating these times amounts to 5 years and 4 months of one’s lifetime. A really big deal. 

And considering the latest pandemic hit that countries around the world are suffering, the usage of social media has only spiked. Of course, many people are turning to social platforms to ‘lift their moods’. However, just as with every addictive element, there’s always a subtle downturn to this sort of “mood lifter”. 

The big hole we’re either not seeing, or just ignoring

Life before the pandemic didn’t make social media less detrimental. Recall the tension and threats of war between the United States and Iran? How social media played a role in amplifying it? With memes popping up across the internet to make light of the issue? And some deliberately instigating violence? 

The question is, what would have happened if both countries based their decisions on comments and “exaltations” flying across the social media? Yet this doesn’t mean a lot of actions (or inactions) on social media haven’t affected the people in ‘real-life’. 

While social media platforms like Instagram appear to be the happy place at one corner of the internet, Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp are where the rants, activism, humanitarian movements, conversations and scandals stem from. 

On Twitter, the last few weeks have been particularly high tensioned. A video of the death of an African-American, George Floyd in Minneapolis, as a result of American police officers kneeling on his neck and back for several minutes was in circulation. This has sparked a global revolt and protests — peaceful and otherwise — across many cities in the United States. 

On the local scene, the stories of rape victims being killed and a young girl being randomly shot by the Nigerian Police has made the rounds. 

These occurrences and more have incited many people to take to social media platforms and share their thoughts and experiences. We frequently see stories of victims either being raped, sexually abused or brutally harassed by the Nigerian police flying all around without restrictions. Many of these stories are graphic, some filled with hate words and others deep enough to swing anyone — whose emotions aren’t in check — into depression.  

By and large, they’ve also escalated protests offline and online. But there’s a bigger battle than these protests. The one that has to do with your mind and what you see. It’s gotten to a point where you may not get a “clean news” without sighting a graphic or emotional draining story of brutality or rape. 

From trends and hashtags on Twitter to feeds on Facebook and Instagram, and broadcasts/status updates circulating on WhatsApp, you can barely escape horrific news.  

It’s almost likely that everywhere you turn on social media is filled with news involving rape cases, police brutality and protests. This is where the battle becomes real and dangerous. There’s a thin line between wanting to be informed about the happenings around you and letting the information you absorb on social media affect your mental health. 

Delving Deeper — the lion, the devil and the deep blue sea? 

Social media affect mental health

You may ask, how does social media affect your mental health? The answer isn’t far fetched. Have you ever seen a movie or had an experience you ended up dreaming about or a scene you could hardly get it out of your head for weeks simply because you just couldn’t fathom why it had to end that way? 

This is exactly the very same mechanism that works with social media and real life. A lot of what you see leaves an effect on your subconscious mind which then becomes your thoughts, informs your actions, dictates your attitude and alters your life as a whole. 

smepeaks caught up with a Psychologist and Neurolinguistics Programmer, Sunni Mallo who corroborates our initial findings that conversations on how social media affects mental health and alter one’s state of mind. “Social media news and conversation can deeply affect an individual’s mental health. Especially in times like this when conversations mostly revolve around negativity. Consistent intake of such negativity gets to an individual over time creating negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear and sometimes leading to depression as well,” Sunni Mallo, a Neurolinguistics Programmer and Trainer at Innocentminds Training and Consulting told smepeaks. 

Another trained Clinical Psychologist, Mojisola Oluyide mentioned that a lot of people even after going on social media to alleviate routine stress only end up with compounded stress levels. “Before the pandemic, racism and all, some people are already going through psychological stress at home, work, etc. These people are already predisposed to mental health issues. It will be worse for them at this time because they may not have access to healthcare services.”

Mojisola further explained an average person’s dilemma when trying to dispel negativity or forget looming depression. But then, it only worsens matter. 

“An average person might resort to addictions like social media, alcohol, drug and substance abuse, violence or unhealthy sexual habits, in order to cope with boredom. Most of these vices tend to serve as a defence mechanism or coping strategies for negative events. For instance, drugs such as marijuana, could make them high and forget some of these happenings temporarily,” Mojisola expatiated

It goes without saying that while birds can’t be prevented from flying above one, it can be prevented from building a nest on one’s head. In the same light, while we can neither stop nor control the flow of information across social media, one can ensure a mechanism that helps to put the mind in check and keep being mentally stable during this period.

Thanks to our Psychologists, we’ve got a couple of failsafe techniques. 

Balance the necessary and unhealthy information

Newspaper

During a conversation with Sunni, she explained that the human mind works like a sponge, absorbing every information it comes across and there’s nothing to be done about it. This means as much as you want to stay in the loop of happenings around the world, there is a need to create a balance between the information you need and what you don’t. 

To keep your mental health stable, Mojisola advised that “people need to build their mental toughness; the ability to survive in the face of problems is one of our strengths as human beings.”

Furthermore, she emphasised the need to engage more in healthy activities such as sports, exercising, a good diet, reading motivational books, learning new skills, writing books, getting social support: having loved ones and positive people around. 

Do away from social media, for a “minute”

Detox

Despite the fact that social media has its perks — because it’s not all bad news — the bad may outweigh the good ones. Sunni agrees that there’s enough negativity going on around but you don’t want to go all out looking for them on social media. 

The very least you can do is to control the addiction and conscious use of social apps. In addition, Moijsola affirmed that you can consciously control the time spent on social media daily either by setting data limits or time frames.

She also advised that you should avoid reading unhealthy news or information upon sighting the headline. 

Block! Block!! Block!!! 

More often than not, we tend to forget the purpose of the block button. It is a tool that should be used most of the time, especially when a particular follower or the information they share to your timeline isn’t helping your mental health. 

“Blocking some sites or some people on social media might also be good for mental health,” Mojisola suggested. 

You’re not an island of knowledge, talk to someone about how you feel 

Social media affect mental health: Communication

As mentioned earlier, the subconscious mind absorbs information faster and once you do, it’s not easy to forget. And as you may now know, bad memories last longer than good ones. The unhelpful and depressing details go on to affect one’s mental balance. When this begins to affect your health, you need to enlist the help of people around you. 

“When you’re feeling anxious, overwhelmed, depressed or feeling sad continuously for a long duration of time. Speak to someone. A counsellor, coach, someone in the church or mosque, someone who you trust and who is able to help,” Sunni advised. 

In their final words, Mojisola and Sunni encouraged positivity all the way. It’s high time we all deliberately found ways to boost our mental health by doing things which make us happy and build us up. While social media might have come as succour, it can easily become the sour spot. You should maintain focus on things that are pleasurable or fun-filled so as to keep healthy information locked in the subconscious and easily block or weed out the bad intakes. 


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