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The Social Media Blues

November 20, 2017 · Posted in Research

It is incredibly rare to come across a person who does not have a social media account these days. People are using these online communities to create and share content, add friends, and follow their interests. Social media networks allow their users to communicate instantly with anyone around the world and keep up-to-date with the latest news and trends. However, despite its benefits, the platform can have a negative impact on the mental health and well-being of its users. The two most prominent disadvantages of social media are cyberbullying and social comparison. The former is a deliberate act of harassment and intimidation of an individual over the Internet. It can take on several forms, but the most common methods are spreading rumours, sending threatening messages, and sharing inappropriate photos or videos (Reid and Weigle 75). Victims can develop serious mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. They can also experience physical health issues, such as insomnia, eating disorders, and substance abuse (“Concerns” 2). While cyberbullying is a well-known epidemic, social comparison is a subtle and often overlooked effect of social media. It occurs when a user sees the content that another person posts online and compares the individual to him or her self (Vogel et al. 206). Users can compare any number of things to other people, such as their physical appearance, personal possessions, popularity, and success. This can act as a motivator for some people, but these social comparisons more often result in feelings of inadequacy and the development of mental health issues, such as depression and low self-esteem (Vogel et al. 206-207). While these issues may be deeply embedded in society, there are precautions that people can take in order to protect themselves and their loved ones from the long-lasting effects of cyberbullying and social comparison.

Before an individual can understand the effects, however, he or she must first understand the concept of social media. The term itself refers to a collection of websites that rely on the creation and distribution of user-generated content (Hinton and Hjorth 60). Some social media networks allow their users to create and share a variety of different content, while others are restricted to a very specific type of content. There are also some platforms that were created with a specific social group in mind (Hinton and Hjorth 35). Individuals can create an account on any one of these websites by using their email address and filling out an assortment of personal information, including their name, date of birth, and country of origin. The amount of required identifying information differs by community; some platforms even give their users the option to remain anonymous. Subsequent to the creation of the user’s account, the individual is able to share content with his or her “friends” or “followers”. Not every social media network uses the same type of connection; some require its users to add another user as a “friend”, and the individual has the option to either accept or ignore the invitation, while others give their users the ability to “follow” other users without the need for approval. They also allow their users to “like” or “follow” celebrity, brand, business, or other high-profile accounts. Users are then able to keep up-to-date with their connections and interests by looking at their news feed or by navigating to a specific profile. They are also able to message their connections via the platform’s instant messaging system. As a result, social media provides a basis for its users to replicate or extend their offline community.

In fact, individuals can benefit from being part of an online community in a variety of ways. For instance, social media networks provide their users with the ability to communicate instantly with anyone around the world, regardless of whether or not they know the individual in person. They can make use of this by forming new friendships or strengthening their existing relationships, which can be especially useful for individuals that are shy or have an introverted personality (Reid and Weigle 73; Noor Al-Deen and Hendricks 11). These users are able to exercise and further develop their social skills in a way that is less intimidating or uncomfortable for them; and as a result, they are more likely to function in the social situations of everyday life (Reid and Weigle 74). Social media can also act as a vessel for creativity and self-expression; in order words, users are able to express themselves and their identity freely and share their creations via these platforms. The feedback that they receive from the community can help facilitate their self-esteem and the further development of their craft (Reid and Weigle 74). While it is unsurprising that these skills are crucial at the time of adolescence, it also plays an equally important role in a student’s transition from secondary to post-secondary education (Reid and Weigle 74; Noor Al-Deen Hendricks 11). Social media can therefore aid its users to develop the personal and social skills that are required to succeed in the demanding social world.

Nonetheless, social media is not without its pitfalls, and its most prominent issue is cyberbullying. Dr. Sameer Hinduja and Dr. Justin W. Patchin, co-directors of the Cyberbullying Research Center, have defined it as the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices”. Some of the most common forms of online bullying are spreading rumours, sending hateful or threatening messages, and sharing inappropriate photos or videos (Reid and Weigle 75). While it has always been an issue in society, it has only gotten worse since the rise of social media. Indeed, cyberbullying differs in a variety of different ways. First, bullies are able to remain anonymous by using a pseudonym or pretending to be someone else (Reid and Weigle 75). For this reason, it has been further described as an “opportunistic crime”; in other words, it is easy to participate in due to the lack of physical interaction between tormentors and their victims. Second, online bullying is not adequately monitored by parents or teachers; and as a result, individuals are more likely to engage in it because they do not see the consequences of their actions.  Finally, as social media is a vast community that is spread across multiple different platforms, bullies have a considerable amount of places to persecute their targets. For instance, a student that is being bullied in school no longer has a break from the harassment, as it now follows him or her home via social media networks (Reid and Weigle 76). These factors make online bullying significantly more difficult to regulate than real-life bullying.

Consequently, cyberbullying can be detrimental to an individual’s mental and physical health and overall well-being. Victims are at a higher risk of suicide and can develop severe mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem (Reid and Weigle 76). Moreover, it has been linked to various physical health issues, such as bed-wetting, eating disorders, fatigue, headaches, and insomnia. Victims are also more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as consuming alcohol or drugs and participating in unsafe sex. They are also more likely to carry a weapon and exhibit violent behaviours (“Concerns” 2). Students that have been bullied online have also experienced a decreased performance in their academics. They could have difficulty focusing in class and may skip school altogether at the fear of running into their tormentors. As a result, they are more likely to receive lower grades than students that have not been bullied (Reid and Weigle 76).  While the effects do not differ from real-life bullying, it is much harder to escape and thus more difficult for victims to cope with cyberbullying.

Similarly, social comparison, the second most prominent issue on social media, can occur both online and offline. In this context, however, it occurs when a user views the content that another person has posted online and compares the individual to him or her self. According to Erin A. Vogel et al., this happens because “humans are thought to possess a fundamental drive to compare themselves with others”.  Comparisons that users can make to other individuals include their physical appearance, personal possessions, popularity, and success. This can be accomplished using one of the two distinctive comparison models: upward and downward social comparison. The former occurs when users compare themselves to the positive traits of individuals that they perceive to be superior to them, while the latter occurs when users compare themselves to the negative traits of individuals that they perceive to be inferior to them (Vogel et al. 206). The social comparisons that transpire on social media are significantly different from the real-world in a number of ways. For one thing, users have the capability to only portray positive images of themselves on the Internet. They can filter out undesirable traits that would be otherwise difficult to hide during face-to-face interactions and shape their self-presentation to match their ideal specifications. For another thing, as social media is an ubiquitous platform that is home to a large number of high-traffic websites, users are susceptible to seeing a much wider range of content than they would be in person (Vogel et al. 207). For this reason, individuals are more likely to engage in social comparisons on the Internet.

Whether these comparisons happen on social media or in person, they have their advantages and disadvantages. Upward social comparisons, for instance, can inspire and motivate individuals to be more like their peers, which could result in them leading a more successful and fulfilling life. They could also use their “comparison targets” as a basis for evaluating their own lives and to indicate whether or not they are on the right track. If individuals conclude that they are on par with their peers, they will feel confident in themselves; conversely, if the user is not on par with their peers, they will feel inadequate and will be more likely to develop serious mental health issues, such as depression and low self-esteem. In addition, it is possible that users may be comparing themselves with “strategically construct[ed] online personas” that do not accurately represent the individual. As a result, they may be trying to reach a standard that is not only fictitious, but is also unrealistic and impossible to achieve. Downward social comparisons, on the other hand, will never fail to boost an individual’s self-esteem and self-confidence because the user is comparing him or her self to another person that is perceived to be inferior (Vogel et al. 207). Individuals thus react to social comparisons in distinctive ways, which is dependent upon the stage that they are at in their own lives and how they view themselves.

All in all, social media is a brilliant platform that gives its users the ability to stay in constant communication with one another. Individuals can benefit from expressing themselves freely and creatively, as well as exercising the skills that are necessary for them to navigate in the demanding social world. Nonetheless, it can be detrimental to the mental and physical health and overall well-being of its users if they fall victim to cyberbullying or social comparison. The problem, however, does not rise from social media itself, but instead is a result of fundamental factors that are deeply embedded in humans and society alike. When it comes to cyberbullying, parents and teachers need to work together to provide more adequate supervision of their children and students. It is true that schools lack the jurisdiction to discipline a bully for his or her actions when the harassment occurs online, however, it is their responsibility to work together with the parents to create appropriate punishments that show the child that there are consequences for his or her actions. When it comes to social comparison, if individuals are more often than not comparing themselves to other users in a way that makes them feel inferior, they should consider quitting social media altogether. Its benefits may be alluring, but not everyone is equipped to handle the challenges that come with it, for reasons that are both in and out of their control. Having said that, it is entirely up to the individual to decide whether or not to participate in the online community and to do so only if it adds value to his or her life. Social media has the ability to keep people connected, but it also has the potential to tear them apart.

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