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Are you due a social media break?

We’ve normalised spending the bulk of our time on social media so we won’t immediately know when our minds are overstimulated. How then will you know if it’s time to step away and be more present? We’ve roped in an expert to shed some light on the reality of excessive screen time.

Social media has become a big part of our lives, and with all the mindless scrolling, we might not even realise just how much time we spend online. psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Milnerton, Dr Abongile Makuluma enlightens that, “it’s time to step away when it starts becoming a problem, and negatively affecting your relationships, work, or physical and mental or emotional health.”

Further noting that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), version 5 revised provides criteria for the diagnosis of mental health disorders and although colloquially, people talk about ‘social network site (SNS) addiction’, no such diagnosis exists currently. However, when we look at the criteria for substance use disorder (‘addiction’), the same principles apply, namely:

– Taking the substance in larger amounts or for longer than you're meant to

– Wanting to cut down or stop using the substance but not managing to

– Spending a lot of time getting, using, or recovering from use of the substance

– Cravings and urges to use the substance

– Not managing to do what you should at work, home, or school because of substance use

– Continuing to use, even when it causes problems in relationships

– Giving up important social, occupational, or recreational activities because of substance use

– Using substances again and again, even when it puts you in danger

– Continuing to use, even when you know you have a physical or psychological problem that could have been caused or made worse by the substance

– Needing more of the substance to get the effect you want (tolerance)

– Development of withdrawal symptoms, which can be relieved by taking more of the substance

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Glamour: What are some of the psychological effects of spending too much time on social media?

Dr Makuluma: There are mixed associations between too much time spent on social media with depression and anxiety, especially where social connectedness is the main driver for use. There is a bidirectional relationship between social network service (SNS) use and life satisfaction and negative emotional wellbeing.

It is also important to differentiate between passive use or active use, and in the latter, whether there is content production (public) or interactive communication. Passive use is not directly related to depression and anxiety whereas active use has a positive correlation with depression anxiety.

Although there is a dearth of research on social media and its psychological effects, it is important to bear in mind that a lot still remains unknown and ongoing research is currently being undertaken therefore our knowledge is continuously updated.

Glamour: Some people report that social media makes them anxious, is there a direct link between social media and anxiety?

Dr Makuluma: Frequent use, problematic use, a perception of negative interactions (e.g., criticism) and ‘addictive’ use have frequently been directly associated with anxiety, with negative and high frequency social comparisons being a significant risk factor for anxiety (and depression).

Rumination is a mediating factor for these risk factors. Association means anxiety and social media co-exist and are therefore not necessarily causal. Use can be the precipitating factor for those individuals who are predisposed to having anxiety, or an exacerbating or perpetuating factor in those who have premorbid anxiety.

Individuals who have social anxiety are also more likely to use social media and rely on it to meet their social needs unfulfilled off the ‘net’.

Glamour: What are some of the ‘dangers’ of relying on social media for validation?

Dr Makuluma: With a high prevalence of social media use, especially younger individuals, behaviours and self-representations can be misconstrued, e.g. posting of selfies as narcissism and divulging personal information as oversharing or insecurity.

Furthermore, these behaviours are self-perpetuating, becoming normalised and entrenched with ‘likes’ and positive comments/emojis (positive reinforcement) and contribute to the reliance on extrinsic validation and impede the development of an intrinsic self-worth. This has long term consequences, specifically when it comes to self-esteem, confidence and building up resilience.

Glamour: Why is this space so addictive? What would you attribute it to?

Dr Makuluma: Studies have shown that up to 49% of adolescents can be considered to have a SNS addiction. It is multifactorial, with pre-existing psychopathology contributing. When we look at the physiology of addiction, we know that a brain chemical (dopamine) occurs in ‘spikes’ and this sense of reward/thrill leads to behaviours seeking the same effect in the future. This is also the case with social media use, where there is instant gratification obtained from rapid scrolling and positive validation on the net.

Glamour: What measures can we take to self-regulate?

Dr Makuluma: ‘Everything in moderation’. We can limit the time, number of sites, posts, comments/posts, place, device and any other parameters which are aligned with your use or day-to-day activities. This is an individual process, and one needs to set boundaries in place to regulate use and be accountable for upholding them.

Glamour: For some people, social media is the only way they connect with people. How possible is it to step away in a situation like this?

Dr Makuluma: The question is why do they feel it is the only way to connect with people? Is it a time or another logistic issue? Are they shy or socially anxious? Do they struggle with social cues or interpersonal connectedness?

Do they not have the energy or motivation to engage with people? Do they fear being judged by others or fear criticism? A life coach or a therapist can help in identifying the root cause(s) and advise accordingly.

Glamour: If deactivating social media accounts is too drastic, how do I gradually step away?

Dr Makuluma: Things do not have to lie on the polarities, on the one end being misuse/’SNS addiction’ and on other, going ‘cold turkey’ (complete abstinence). Instead, one can reduce use, learning to tolerate feelings of discomfort (‘withdrawal symptoms’). Once this has stabilised, reduce social media use again. Repeat this process, until one reaches a more functional manner to engage with social media.

Glamour: What is a social media detox?

Dr Makuluma: A social media detox has been described as removing oneself from social media in its various forms and includes measures such as cutting down use or preventing use completely.

Glamour: Do you recommend it?

Dr Makuluma: It depends. In the modern world it is difficult to completely function without social media. You must remember that social media includes certain applications (‘apps’) and WhatsApp which have become intertwined in our daily functioning, being used as a communication/information platform at schools, work, families, friends, etc.

If you have made prior attempts to cut down without success, get annoyed or angry when others point out or complain about your use, feel guilt over your use or use social media at inappropriate times, e.g., on dates, at work or other activities which require (or there is an expectation for) undivided attention, then it is recommended to take a closer look at your usage and its effect on your life.

Glamour: What are the benefits of a social media detox?

Dr Makuluma: A social media detox allows an individual to take a step back from all the ‘noise’ and to have more time. This time can be used to develop new hobbies, increase social engagement (face to face), take an appraisal of where you are and where you want to be and reflect on how your emotions and quality of life evolve without social media use.

Glamour: Ideally, how long should it be?

Dr Makuluma: There is no specific time frame per se. People say it takes 21 days to form a new habit but in practice, mental health practitioners will attest that it varies and is usually longer. It is not a straight path to overcome or change behaviour. There are environmental cues, physiologic processes which have developed over time and oftentimes people ‘relapse’, returning to their past behaviour. So, the answer is ‘as long as is needed’

Glamour: After experiencing the benefits, how does one learn to engage with social media in a healthy way?

Dr Makuluma: We need to define what a ‘healthy way’ is. Are we talking about the frequency/time spent? The number of sites used. The negative consequences of use, whether it be psychological, physical or in functionality? Whether there is passive consumption of content or the content the user generates ‘posts’? Users need to be cognisant of all these factors and be honest with themselves about the impact (cost) of social media use in their lives and weigh it out against the benefits thereof. The benefits should always exceed the costs and social media use should not negatively affect one’s quality of life.

Glamour: Can therapy help in a situation where a person is unable to function without social media?

Dr Makuluma: Most certainly. Therapy is aimed at helping people overcome or cope with distress, improve functioning and foster personal growth. The inability to function without social media or dependence on it can be mitigated by strengthening the individual’s emotional and mental coping mechanisms, help seeking behaviours, interpersonal connectedness and belonging, improving social competence and communication skills, intrinsic worth and establishing a ‘healthy balance’ in one’s life and support system. Unfortunately, the compensatory advantage can be a double edged sword. Increasing reliance on web based communication and perpetuating social anxiety through avoidance of ‘real life’ communication.

For information about mental health services and accessing care, Netcare Akeso is here to help. In the event of a psychological crisis, individuals can also phone the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.

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