By Junelie Anthony Velonta | Feature Writer
Vol. XCIII No, 7
Sept. 27, 2019
Ancient humans, their visions of the future fallible, would probably think of the Internet age as an information utopia. After all, communication is at its fastest and most accessible. Within seconds, one could receive the sentiments of friends one has only met through the Internet—full of emotion, but no physical interaction. Information and human interaction, quite literally, are lingering on fingertips.
They are wrong, though. While people around the world could freely proclaim themselves as “global citizens,” humanity is still chained by its tribal tendencies. What use is information when context is thrown out the window? What use is fast communication when it is used to plant dissent and reap difference? If the mighty are those that hold information, then how the mighty have fallen.
As the mighty fall, with all the noise and grandeur of decay, those that are below them often suffer the consequences. Narrowing the tribe down to the individual, it becomes evident that the Internet, specifically social media, affects how a person thinks. A person’s mental health relates to his/her exposure to the Internet. Today, none can deny it. Like with life, however, social media affects a person’s mental health in different ways.
Older folks would often correlate modern problems with the technology they don’t understand. “In my generation, we did not have those. And we turned out fine.” Such a quote, or something similar, is so commonly thrown around that it might be nothing short of a miracle if one has not heard of it. However, every now and then, they do get something right. Or at least, halfway there.
For example, the more overt outset of teenage depression is often blamed by many as a result of teens spending more time exploring social media. In a survey made by the Pew Research Center in 2014, nearly 81% of American teenagers use online social media. While it could be argued that this exposure to technology is because of the high degrees of industrialization and standard of living in the USA, the rest of the world is catching up. Phones, now, are a common occurrence. In less than a generation, the Internet has gone from slow and cumbersome dial-up to 3G in a single tap of the screen.
In relation to this, in another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2017, 13% of teenage Americans with ages 13-17 stated that they have experienced a major depressive episode. This 13% accounts to about 3.2 million teenagers. In 2007, this number was only 8%. Between those years, online social media began to become prevalent.
While this may not be a strong link relating social media user to mental health problems, it must be noted that in a study conducted by Costello, Erkanli, and Angold published in 2006 for the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, between the years 1965 until 1996, cases of teenage depression remained at a steady rate. This was a trend that occurred in the span of 30 years.
A more concrete piece of evidence could be found in the study of Lup, Trub, and Rosenthal published in 2015. The study found that depression was more common among teenagers who followed strangers in Instagram, including influencers. In comparison, teenagers who have only followed friends were less prone to having depression. This is further supported by the study of Lin, et. al., published in 2016, that found that young adults who spent more time in social media platforms had significantly increased odds of depression.
Internet and Communication
With all the flaws of the Internet, and the faults of those that use it, online social media is quickly becoming the new frontier of communication. Even by 2007, 69% of American adults have had access to the Internet. Furthermore, a quarter of these Internet users have used online social media platforms.
A decade later, social media and the Internet have gone beyond the West. In 2017 alone, 3.8 billion people have had access to the Internet. That is roughly half the world’s population. Within this statistic, around 2.9 billion are active social media users. These numbers are only set to increase as the world population increases, and the Internet becomes more accessible.
For those that believe that social media negatively influences the mental health of people, this could potentially spell the doom of modern humanity. There have been sentiments that the Internet and technology augmented communication is ruining interpersonal interaction—something so inherently human. Sociologist and psychologist Sherry Turkle published multiple works regarding this. Among those, perhaps the most familiar to Sillimanians is her essay The Flight from Conversation. In it she talks about how technology is damaging our ability to communicate. Citing her work experience, she laments how modern people are finding it hard to communicate with each other, truthfully.
Care in the Internet Age
However, one aspect that is often overlooked when it comes to the Internet and communication is how it could potentially be beneficial for everyone’s psyche. Social media could, potentially, help solve mental health problems. Even in its infancy in the mid-2000s, emotional and mental support has been a topic in online social media platforms.
Around 5% of all adults in the US who have access to the Internet were active in online support groups in 2007. In 2003, 3% of Internet users in the USA have communicated to health care providers through social media. This was increased to 10% in 2005. Beckjord, et. al., who have conducted this study, report that this statistic is bound to increase.
With the increasing accessibility of the Internet and social media, people with mental illnesses are now actively sharing their experiences and are asking for advice over the Internet. This, in turn, creates a sense of belonging. A community forms, with or without physical interaction.
In a study conducted by Naslund, et. al., published in 2016, members of the said community were observed. Many benefits were reported by peers of this community. Among said benefits were greater social connectedness and feelings of group belonging. For those having problems with physical treatment, stories regarding and strategies in combating every day challenges were easily shared. Help regarding life decisions and interventions for better wellbeing were also offered freely. Communication, that technology hinders, suddenly turns helpful.
However, the researchers did state that, if left unchecked, these communities could potentially give unforeseen risks. These risks include exposure to misleading information, hostile interaction with members of the same community, among others. With this in mind, they did arrive to a positive conclusion. The benefits could, potentially, outweigh the risks.
There and back again
Mental health remains to be a controversial topic. While the stigma is slowly being eradicated, there still remains opposition. Whether it is misinformation, or outright denial of scientific findings, the movement still faces resistance along the way.
Aspects of the Internet, and social media, may add complications to this resistance. However, life tends to lean towards balance. Problems that are born from technology could also be solved by looking at technology at another angle. The Internet may say that it wants you gone. Though, it replies to itself:
“There’s a place for you to stay.”