Last month, the country was shocked when news of a girl committing suicide after posting a poll on her Instagram story made headlines.
The poll, which only said “Really Important, Help Me Choose D/L”, received a 69 per cent vote for D, which is believed to have been the final push for the teenager to jump to her death.
It has been speculated that the D and L stands for Die and Live, but it is unclear if her followers knew what those letters meant when they casted their votes.
Whether the poll result showed the callousness of her social media followers or the nature of the app where people don’t seek full information before giving opinions, the incident had prompted the public to question the impact of social media on mental health.
There have been many studies, in the US and Europe specifically, regarding the impact of social media on mental health, especially among teenagers.
However, the results of these studies are often contradictory.
While there are studies that show excessive use of social media may have a negative impact on a person’s wellbeing, there are others that indicate that the effect is negligible or sometimes even positive.
After reading through about a dozen of these studies, we were no closer to getting a conclusive answer, so we spoke to Malaysia Mental Health Association (MMHA) president Datuk Dr. Andrew Mohanraj for his expert opinion.
Good or bad?
It’s human nature to want to present the best side to the world, so it comes as no surprise that social media is all about self-image, Dr. Andrew said.
“There seem to be a constant need to be recognised and acknowledged by peers - who is watching me, who is approving of me, who is liking or disliking me?
“This constant need for validation means living in an environment of low self-confidence, which could lead to self-harm and suicide attempts, “he added.
He, however, said we must also acknowledge that social media has played a big role in providing people with an avenue to willingly talk about mental health in a society that stigmatises psychological distress.
“Social media has provided a voice to distressed teenagers and to some extent help mainstream mental health issues by sending out a clear message that people who suffer from psychological distress are not alone,” he said.
Dr. Andrew added that the best way forward is to set healthy boundaries on the use of social media which encourages empathy and understanding rather than hatred or dehumanising others to the point of driving them to attempt suicide.
Several studies have even shown that the issue with social media is not the platform itself, but the amount of time spent on them and how people engage on it.
A report on the research presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine in Washington in 2016 showed that addiction, rather than casual social media use, is the issue.
Here’s another report on a study by the British Royal Society of Public Health that also shows the correlation between the way social media is used and its effect on people.
Should you cut down on your screen time?
The simple answer is...yes. However, as Dr. Andrew put it, social media can also be a lifeline for those who are depressed or suicidal.
“Social media can offer support and guidance to those in need. More importantly, through social media, people in distress have also discovered that they are not alone in their suffering and that there's nothing to be ashamed to say you are depressed or suicidal,” he said.
In short, it really goes back to what you use social media for and the amount of time you spend on them.
If you spend a lot of time comparing yourself to others and get the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out), it may lead to self-esteem issues and even contribute to other mental health issues.
However, using social media to connect with others and educating oneself can be beneficial in the long run.
How long is too long when it comes to time spent on social media? According to the study by Royal Society of Public Health, less than an hour and closer to 30 minutes a day keeps users happy.
This also depends on the social media platform used; with Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram seen to have the most negative impact on a person.
Other social media networks seem to have less of a negative impact, with those that usually involve having one-on-one conversations with others making people the happiest.
Does social media contribute to depression?
There hasn’t been any research to show conclusively that social media can lead to depression or any other mental health issues, as a matter of fact.
However, use of social media can have an adverse effect on those who are already going through a depressive episode.
So, if you’re going through a rough patch, it may be a good idea to uninstall those apps or at least curate it so that you’re only following and interacting with people and pages that have positive impact on your general wellbeing.
Also, we can't stress this enough: remember that you’re not alone. Reach out to friends or family if you are having problems.
If you’re feeling suicidal and need an impartial party to speak to, call Befrienders at 603-79568145 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can find a list of therapists near you here.
If you’re worried about the mental health of your loved ones, read more about signs of depression and suicide here and how you can help.
All you need to do is to put your phone down, and take a look around you. There are always people in need, and who knows, you could save a life.