Alone Together

As the pandemic ravages societies and social distancing measures continue with no end in sight, the online arena is more alive than it has ever been before. With many people staying at home to curb the spread of the virus they are spending more of their lives online. As a result, online-based businesses like entertainment websites and streaming services have seen a spike in traffic. The most staggering increase, however, has been in the use of social media platforms. Screen time and active engagement for social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have skyrocketed.

Human beings are social creatures. We need the companionship of others to thrive in life, and the strength of our connections has a huge impact on our mental health and happiness. In today’s world, however, many of us rely on social media platforms to connect. While easy connection and accessibility have been modern blessings, we are now beginning to see its dark sides. Ironically for a technology that’s designed to bring people closer together, spending too much time engaging with social media can actually make you feel lonelier and more isolated as well as exacerbate mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

While many of us enjoy staying connected on social media, excessive use can fuel feelings of anxiety, depression, isolation, and “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO). While FOMO has been around far longer than social media, sites such as Facebook and Instagram seem to intensify feelings that others are having more fun or living better lives than you are. The idea that you’re missing out on certain things can impact your self-esteem, trigger anxiety, and fuel even greater social media use. FOMO can compel you to pick up your phone every few minutes to check for updates, or compulsively respond to each and every alert even if that means taking risks while you\’re driving, missing out on sleep at night, or prioritizing social media interaction over real-world relationships.

In addition, excessive social media use can create a negative, self-perpetuating cycle: When you feel lonely, depressed, anxious, or stressed, you use social media more often as a way to relieve boredom or feel connected to others. Using social media more often, though, increases FOMO and feelings of inadequacy, dissatisfaction, and isolation. In turn, these feelings negatively affect your mood and worsen symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. These worsening symptoms cause you to use social media even more, and so the downward spiral continues.

If you\’re spending an excessive amount of time on social media and feelings of sadness, dissatisfaction, frustration, or loneliness are impacting your life, it may be time to re-examine your online habits and find a healthier balance. According to recent statistics, the average Internet user spends about six hours online and this figure is rising in the midst of social distancing measures. While the situation in Ethiopia may not be so dire the same problems are beginning to raise profound societal and mental health concerns, especially among the youth. Various research findings suggest that the ways people are using social media may have more of an impact on their mental health and wellbeing than just the frequency and duration of their use.

Much like a gambling compulsion or an addiction to substances, social media use can create psychological cravings. When you receive a “like”, a “share”,” or a favorable reaction to a post, it can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. This feature is intentionally designed into such platforms to hook our attention in order to display Ads. Sharing endless selfies and all your innermost thoughts on social media can also create unhealthy self-centeredness and distance you from real-life connections. This kind of self-absorption creates an unhealthy self-image and induces us to spend more time online.

The most impactful and long-term negative effect is the erosion of genuine relationships and decreased self-awareness. Many of us use social media as a “security blanket”. Whenever we’re in a social situation and feel anxious, awkward, or lonely, we turn to our phones and log on to social media. This gives no time for self-reflection. Every spare moment is filled by engaging with social media, leaving us little or no time for reflecting on who we are, what we think, why we act the way we do, or why we do the things that allow us to grow as a person.

The next obvious question is how does one reduce and modify social media use? As trivial as it sounds the most effective thing to do is to reduce time online. A prominent study found that decreasing social media use to 30 minutes a day resulted in a significant reduction in levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep problems, and FOMO. This can be achieved by turning off your phone at certain times of the day, disabling social media notifications or using apps that track and limit time spent online.

The other solution is to change the focus. Many of us access social media purely out of habit or to mindlessly kill moments of downtime. But by focusing on your motivation for logging in you can tackle the root of the problem, only engaging in our desired task and avoiding spiraling down the rabbit hole. The most useful tool in this regard is to build digital awareness. We need to be mindful of the content we find and how we react to it in order to gain most out of the online experience with none of the downsides.

Written by: Hileleule Getachew