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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 14 November 2018

Thanks to social media, the pandemics of the future could be psychological

Every study that has explored the relationship between depression and social media use finds a link, writes Justin Thomas

Young people are putting their mental health in danger to get their social media fix. Reuters 
Young people are putting their mental health in danger to get their social media fix. Reuters 

Earlier this month Germany’s Federal Court of Justice granted the parents of a deceased teenager full control of her Facebook account. The basic argument was that social media accounts should be inherited just as books and letters are. The fact that this teenager died in 2012 and the case took several years to resolve underscores the massive and uncertain role social media plays in modern life.

Last week Abu Dhabi Public Prosecution ordered the arrest of three social media influencers after they used social media to post videos of themselves taking part in the “In my feelings challenge”. This is a recent and no doubt short-lived social media craze, which can endanger lives. In the same week, a Kuwaiti social media influencer sparked outrage and embarrassment when she made insensitive Marie Antoinette-eqsue comments about workers’ rights.

These episodes raise a serious question: how should we best prevent social media abuses?

The societal and psychological consequences of social media in the information age are emerging slowly. The consequences of the headline-grabbing examples above are fairly obvious, but other implications might not be as immediately apparent.

For instance, a recent government survey cited social media use as a factor in the UAE’s increasing divorce rate.

Other implications of our information age are also coming to light in the consulting rooms of mental health professionals. For instance, the subject matter of delusions, the false beliefs sometimes held by people experiencing mental health issues, is now increasingly focused on information age themes.

In the past decade, psychiatrists have begun reporting patients with delusions involving things like the belief that their whole life is a staged reality show, secretly being broadcast online to an enthralled public. This condition has been observed frequently enough to have earned a name: the Truman show delusion (after the 1998 hit movie dealing with a similar theme).

The emergence of the Truman show delusion highlights just how much our societies are being shaped by the information age. In medicine, the term "pathoplasticity" refers to symptoms that change their form and content in response to external influences. Delusions are pathoplastic and their content is undoubtedly being remoulded by the information age.

The ubiquity of digital cameras, the popularity of reality shows and the dominance of social media are at least three strands that have converged to radically impact the way we act and interact as a society. The Truman show delusion is not caused by these new technologies, but it reflects just how ingrained these developments have become.

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Read more from Justin Thomas:

In space, behavioural psychology and mental health are matters of life and death

What happens when amateurs misuse mental health terms?

Forget the decade of deceit – we are heading for a millennium of mistrust

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And while delusions don’t appear to be caused by information technology, other psychological complaints might be. Every study that has explored the relationship between depression and social media use finds a link. Whether the survey looks at the frequency of use, style of use or the number of different platforms used, there is always a trend towards higher levels of depressive symptoms among those who use social media most.

One study published earlier this year in the American Journal of Health Behavior looked at a nationally representative sample of 1,730 US adults aged between 19 and 32. The study categorised patterns of social media use based on style and frequency of use, generating five unique categories of user which the researchers termed: wired, connected, diffuse dabblers, concentrated dabblers and the unplugged. The wired and the connected, the heaviest users of social media, had significantly higher levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Is it that depressed people use social media more? Or is there a causal relationship, a mood-altering mechanism, perhaps driven by the tendency to make social comparisons on social media?

We still don’t have definitive answers to such questions, let alone solutions. If answers and possible antidotes are to be found any time soon, then we need to commit more effort and resources to research.

I would like to see a national research center for the psychosocial implications of new technologies, or at least something similar.

An early adopter of many innovative and experimental technologies, the UAE has energetically embraced the information age. In 2016 Google ranked the UAE number one in global smartphone penetration, at 73.8 per cent. The UAE also makes the global top 20 in the internet penetration rankings. In short, the UAE is well-wired and would benefit significantly from research exploring the psychological and social implications of the information age.

When food production technology advanced to a stage that enabled masses of people to consume calorie-dense diets, we saw the emergence of an obesity epidemic. What psychosocial pandemics might our information technologies spawn?

Dr Justin Thomas is professor of psychology at Zayed University

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