Ola Majekodunmi speaks to cyber-psychology researcher Dr Nicole Fox Hamilton about whether social media really is that bad for us…
I first joined social media at the age of 13 years-old. That was 11 years ago. At the time, it was for purely social purposes, and felt like a very playful environment where I could find an easier, fun and simple way to chat to friends and family.
We all enjoy the occasional mindless scrolling through social media; having a cheeky look at what everyone is up to, how people are keeping. Finding others online who seem to be experiencing something similar can be especially supportive of our own feelings during these tough times of the pandemic. I find that Twitter is the ideal social media space to know you are not alone in your thinking and that others do understand, especially when it comes to feeling down and in despair. People are so honest on that app and I really do appreciate that at times. My support network from my followers there is really lovely; it is touching to know even strangers care about your well-being.
However, it can be easy to become addicted to social media, to get to a point where one struggles to observe healthy boundaries around social media.
I wanted to look at the point when it becomes clear that there is a problem with how we consume social media. To consider whether social media definitely is toxic to our mental health? Is it really the worst thing ever invented?
I think I would safely say I am a confessed, self-diagnosed social media addict. It is my escape and it is where I communicate with lots of different people from around the globe, as well as keep up to date with current trends.Nowadays, social media feels very necessary to use. Nearly every company or business I know of promotes themselves online just like influencers, journalists, bloggers and so many more do. I know for myself as someone who works in media, I would feel that I would be easily forgotten about if I did not have an online presence. However, I try not to overshare on my life and I do go some days without posting online as it gets very tiring and even irritating at times, feeling like you have to update people on what you are doing.
Social media has been key in my life since I joined Facebook back in 2010. I remember the excitement of joining the site, knowing a few friends were already on.
My mum was not too keen on me suddenly becoming another patron of this extremely popular site, but she wanted to please me. My dad had always had a disdain for social media which he maintains to this day. For a little while, my mum did keep tabs on who my Facebook friends were, but both my parents quickly warmed to the network when they saw it was a much easier way for me to keep in touch with my older siblings living in Nigeria, as well as extended family there too.
I was obsessed with the forum in my teenage years, posting up cringey statuses: “Like this and I’ll give you my honest opinion xo” comes to mind, as well as posting up cute profile photos to impress the boys. The 2010’s were the peak for Facebook, and it seemed like anyone who was not on it at the time was missing out. It felt like such an easy way to communicate with friends, create groups based on your interests and ideas, find out about competitions, in addition to finding out about the latest, coolest events in your city. However, even at its height, sites like Facebook proved to be a hotbed for online trolling and bullying.
Remember Ask.fm? The then in demand question and answer forum, where you could ask someone anything you wanted, with the benefit of your identity remaining hidden. When that network started to take off through Facebook, I was so tempted to set one up and try it out, however I noticed that people I knew who had were getting a lot of hate comments from anonymous people.
At that time, I remember hearing stories in the news about a lot of bullying teenagers were enduring on this site and across social media in general which led to devastating consequences. As a shy, unconfident, and insecure teenager who was not always happy at school, I suspected that being a part of this internet community would make me feel even worse about myself, so I am glad I never gave in. Yet, this dark side of social media still lasts to this day and in my adulthood, I have been on the receiving end of it. I remember when I was first properly starting out in my career in journalism and I was building my profile online, I got a few troll comments in English and Irish about how I conduct myself, and that I as someone of Nigerian heritage speaking Irish was ‘hijacking’ the language. I initially found this humorous as it did not make much sense to me but sharing this with others who were horrified did open up my eyes to the life of people who have a big presence online.
As a minority with a profile due to work in the media and the creative industry, whenever your next project or gig is published, you are usually on the receiving end of racist and discriminatory vitriol from keyboard warriors who appear to have too much time on their hands. In fact, anyone with a profile on social media has a good idea of what it is to receive online hate.
“It comes with the job” you are often told, but we all have feelings and emotions though. There is no doubt that you have to have thick skin being in the public-eye, however everything has its limit and there is no excuse for vile abuse online. If you do not like someone, don’t follow them, mute them and share a constructive critique of them rather than personal, disgusting comments.
I sometimes think about the tragedy of Caroline Flack, the British presenter who died by suicide in February 2020. The onslaught of abuse Flack was faced with online when news first broke out about an alleged assault must have been devastating to her mental health. I cannot even imagine what must have been going through her mind reading such horrible tweets about herself, as people made personal judgements about her even before we were given all the facts about the incident. With social media, everyone and anyone can be a commentator on your life – everyone is given that right, except if they violate the rules.
It often is a fear of mine to be pursued online in such a way, although racist trolls do not bother me in the slightest. I see these kinds of trolls as bots, as faceless people who are cowards that would not have a pluck of courage to say this to me in person. They just feel threatened by the unique work I do and take a cheap hit at me for it.
Although it feels like a safe assumption to make that too much consumption of social media is toxic to one’s mental health, Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton has a somewhat different view on it.
Dr Fox hamilton, whose work focuses on the areas of online dating and communication, and who has a PhD in cyber-psychology, explains that she feels that this negative association with social media “is inaccurate”, as it’s seen as a “moral panic change in society for the worst, but it’s not true; research doesn’t support that. It only has a tiny effect [on our mental health]”.
A moral panic is a fear that something evil threatens the well-being of society. The cyber-psychology researcher says that other factors affect our mental health more than social media; good sleep and exercise. “For the most part people are connecting with friends [on social media] so it’s not negative to a large extent”, she comments.
Particularly during the lockdown, Dr Nicola points out, “people have time on their hands, are passively scrolling, not really connecting, more so comparing.. There is more time for procrastination, but it has a temporary effect on well-being. With the stress of the pandemic, people are not using it [social media] mindfully”.
As things are not normal now, our mental well-being is dependent on “exercise, eating, and what you’re doing, not how long you spend on social media”, she observes, with research from a big study finding that only 0.5% of young people’s mental health was affected by social media, reasserting that it is more important what you do in your own personal life.
Her advice would be that people need “to be mindful of how they’re using social media. Be careful who you follow; friends and people who you care about are best, instead of celebrities, as their presentation has most likely been edited and is giving a ‘positive’ impression of their lives. However, most know this isn’t real”.
Addressing the viral photo of model Kendall Jenner’s physique from a photoshoot the star did with her sisters; the photo was quickly shared all over online platforms with people gushing over her body. Dr Nicola Fox Hamilton suggests that we as women, “are smarter than we think. It’s more triggering for people who have mental health problems already. The hype can make people feel worse. If you feel like you need a social media detox, then you’re probably spending too much time on it”.
Although social media most definitely has its benefits whether it be it for connection or work, we need to be sure that we do not forget there is a much bigger life out there beyond our internet community. I do really enjoy sharing my work online and connecting with others I would get the chance to speak with otherwise. There is a lot of pressure, especially on the young generation working in media for example, to keep up a profile and stay ‘relevant’ so that everyone gets an insight into the work we do and the experience we have. I also feel that most people would not know how to hire me for gigs or be able to contact me easily if it was not for social media. This is just how it works now.
I feel nostalgic for the days that social media did not exist or was not a huge phenomenon like it is today, because I feel at a loss when most of my time goes towards it. Finding that balance between reality and cyber-world is key and essential.