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December 5, 2023

Zimbabwe: Impact of Internet-based-platforms on mental health in adolescents 

By Zimbabwean independent researcher, Tapiwanashe Hadzizi. First published in Zimbabwe Network for Citizen Journalists.

Abstract

The paper examines the impact of how historically, mental health in the African health systems and development policies has been side-lined due to a myriad of reasons. The impacts of mental health are far-reaching and much has been learned, but far more remains unknown especially the conceptualization of mental health issues of the youth in the digital era, where social media is an integral part of their daily life.

The advancement of human race has witnessed an increasing use of technological gadgets and the internet. As the dividends of modernity unfolds, young people have been the frontrunners in using the web and internet based platforms that allows people to connect with others on virtual social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter X, LinkedIn and Snapchat.

Through the use of qualitative and utilization of digital ethnography methods, the project articulated how the youth in Harare, Zimbabwe using social media have become both victims and perpetrators of online social cruelties leading to social isolation, emotional distress, toxic online interaction, cyberbullying and loneliness.

Monumental mental health effects have been witnessed due to change in human agency processes leading to social media use related to suicides, abuse of drugs, online identity theft and character assassination.

Introduction

With the growing developments in technology, life has become more comfortable and faster. At the same time, the rise of technology has also created problems all around. Among the pool of technological discoveries, social media has become so popular nowadays that one cannot stay away from it.

The invention of the smartphones has made the use of social media even prolific. This trend is changing the way of living in society, communicating, sharing and expressing ideas and availability of the products or services.

Social media as a result has some positive and negative impact on the lives of growing young people. It is in that regard that research extrapolated focusing on unpacking the impact of internet based platforms (IBPs)/ social media on the mental health of young people in African context using the case of Harare, Zimbabwe.

Background of the study

There is no single recognized definition of social media (IIA and Jacka, 2011). Social media is a subjective term because its meaning varies from person to person. The definition of social media is determined based on for what purpose it is used. Thus, social media have many definitions. A broader perspective is essential to understand the meaning of social media. Some of the definitions of social media are mentioned below:

According to the Cambridge Business English Dictionary (2018), social media is a form of media that allows people to communicate and share information using the internet or mobile phones. Social media is interactive computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks (Wikipedia 2018, cited 26.09.2018).

Social media is a group of internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user generated content (Kaplan and Haenelein, 2010).

Merriam-Webster (2014) defined social media as forms of electronic communication (as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (as videos) (Bashir, 2017).

From the definitions mentioned above, the general meaning of social media can be derived as an internet-based application that allows the users to communicate in the form of text, voice or video and share information, thoughts, and visual elements in a virtual community, privately or publicly.

However, the use of social media is not, only limited to communication and sharing. Thus, it has been used in health, politics, economics, technology, education, entertainment and service sectors enormously.

According to the report published by Statista (September, 2018), the most popular social media platforms are shown in Figure 1 below:

FIGURE 1. Showing the number of social media users worldwide (in millions)

Definition of Mental Health

Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community (World Health Organization, 2014). Mental health is an integral and essential part of overall health.

It can be defined in three ways: the absence of disease, a state in which the organism allows the full performance of its function, a state of balance between one’s physical and social environment. Each of these three definitions depends on the basic needs, such as food, shelter, survival, protection, society,
support and freedom from pain, environmental hazards, stress and from any part of exploitation. (Bhugra, Till and Sartorius, 2013)

Based on the above two definitions, it can be said that mental health, is a state of well-being and an ability to realize and utilize one’s potential to live a normal life. However, there are numerous arguments in finding the universal meaning of mental health.

For instance, people are used to hearing ‘mental health’ as a euphemism for a ‘mental illness.' In more detail, the perception of society is different based on the culture, geography, and religion. In some
societies, the term ‘mental illness’ is taken as a negative and an embarrassing term. People
mock at patient having a mental illness.

In this situation, the victimized person hide their illness from society for fear of being teased uses the term ‘mental health’ to describe ‘mental illness.' Some societies perceive ‘mental health’ as a polite and positive term than a ‘mental illness.' Here, the definitions of mental health and mental illness cannot be differentiated. (Cattan and Tilford, 2006).

Additionally, WHO (2014) further noted that, mental health is a state of healthy mind. If the mind is unhealthy, outcomes are a mental illness and a mental disorder where the mental illness refers to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and the mental disorder refers to an alcohol and drug addiction including the mental illness.

However, people living with a mental disorder can also achieve good levels of well-being – living a satisfying, meaningful, contributing life despite pain and distress. Therefore, mental health is not just the absence of mental disorder.

It is a broader term that represents both the mental disorder and the mental illness as its determinant factors (World Health Organization, 2014).

Impacts of social media on mental health

The evolution of the social media is in peak conquering the world’s population. Based on the facts and figures published by Statista (2018), 71.8% of the world population use some form of social network in 2018. It was expected to rise to 72.4 % by 2022. The present life of people is deeply connected with social media. Being social has become the necessity of the world right now.

With the development of smartphones, the use of social media has become even prolific. People like to communicate with their friends, families, relatives, and strangers, like their status, pictures, and videos, raise voice against the rising issues such as gender inequality, racism and spend time surfing latest news, discoveries and information through social media.

Teenagers even spend time on social media playing games and finding dating partners. The Multifunctional behaviour is the cause people are attracted to using social media. Moreover, the relation of a human being with social media is indivisible at present.

Right now, an unborn child is being socialized online and being liked and commented on (Halpert, TEDx,
2015). It has become essential for people to be active in social media. Since morning to evening, people are busy updating their day and activities. This shows the power of social media and how deeply it is rooted in our life. Nonetheless, it has become even more essential to get likes and comments on our posts on social media.

There has been ranking: one with more likes treated as high profile and few likes as low profile. Also, people are free to comment on someone’s post easily. All of such practices is changing our lives for forever.

Similarly, when people treat social media as part of their life and use it all the time, it has some impact on their health. Since social media engages communication and interaction, it requires a lot of brain activities than physical. As a result, the effect is seen on the mental health of people in recent time.

In the article "effect of social media on mental health," it is said that, excessive use of social media creates the imbalance. The report also mentioned that, social media phenomenon is new which present clear benefits but, also has an effect on the well-being and mental health of its users.

Further, connection between social media and its undesirable outcomes like an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, and loneliness raises alarms among younger generations (Bashir, 2017)

Figure 1 shown below published is by The Economist (18th May 2017), shows the impact of four popular social media (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter) on the mental health:

FIGURE 2. Showing the effect of social media on the mental health of 14 to 24 years age
group

In Figure 2, the age group of 14 to 24 were selected for the survey. The results are shown in Figure 2. The chart shows the positive and negative effect of social media (Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter) on mental health.

Positive results such as access to health advice, real-world relationships, awareness of people's health, community building, emotional support, self identity, and self-expression are shown with a blue colour: light blue as least contribution and dark blue as a higher contribution. Negative effects such as sleep disorder, Fear of Missing out (FoMo), bullying, body image, anxiety, depression, and loneliness are shown with yellow and red colour: light yellow as least contribution and dark red as a higher contribution.

All four social media mentioned in the chart has some role in all the positive and negative effects on
mental health. For instance, Instagram has a higher role in body image, anxiety and loneliness, Snapchat has a higher role in FoMo, and Facebook has a higher contribution in sleeping disorder, bullying, anxiety, and depression whereas Twitter has significantly less role in all negative impacts than other three media simultaneously.

On the other side, Instagram has a higher contribution to self-expression and self-identity, Facebook has a higher involvement in emotional support, community building, awareness of people’s health and access to health advice, Twitter plays a more significant role in self-expressing and community building and
Snapchat has a higher role in building a relationship with the real world.

Thus, social media has been identified as both beneficial and damaging to people's mental health because of the nature of its content and the way people perceive it. Some argue that, social media can have a positive impact on the mental health through increased support which brings a sense of hope, companionship, and motivation to the patients who have a mental disorder.

Other studies suggest a link between social media and mental health promotes psychological distress (Nasuland, 2014). Nowadays, not all people use social media as a platform to connect with friends and relatives, but, there are also many professionals who are giving advice and suggestion to the needy people through it.

In the case of mental health, people who suffer from some mental health issues such as anxiety, and depression, some find it difficult to share their problems with the real people around them. In such cases, social media plays a supportive role to connect such a person to seek help from different health professionals or people with similar experiences virtually.

For instance, Elefriends is a social platform managed by the mental health charity (Mind) which
provides urgent help on the mental health issues. There are also numerous community pages
or groups in Facebook run by mental health professionals to support mental health issues and
to increase awareness.

Instagram offers support and helps when type ‘#depressed' in a search box. However, the user should also be responsible for choosing the appropriate platforms to share their issues because social media is also a place where online bullying happens all the time.

In a new survey supported by Hopelab and Well Being Trust, it demonstrated that social media
is an integral part of young people’s lives and that large number of teens and adults experiencing moderate to severe symptoms of depression turn to the internet for help.

The survey report even alerted telling young people who have symptoms of depression to stay off
the social media may not always be wise; for some, it may cut off a critical lifeline, a connection
to advice, information, inspiration, and support (Miller 2018).

Personal Empowerment

Social media provide a range of benefits and opportunities to empower people in a variety of ways. It plays the role of a creator, curator, and spectator. In more detail, through social media, an individual can create their profile showing their best quality, share the profile with billions of audiences from around the world and seek for the right opportunity.

Thus, social media is a place of knowledge from where people can learn the skills they are interested in, read and follow the inspiring stories of a successful personality, get motivated and develop as a confident
person.

Furthermore, in a blog written by Tazi (2015) mentioned an Australian model who quitted using social media by describing it as inauthentic and pointless. However, Tazi was not convinced with that action and the reason she gave describing social media as meaningless.

Instead, Tazi said, “social media offers representation unheard of in mainstream media. (Tazi 2015). Social media is accessible to everyone around the world. The role of social media on social reformation is incomparable. Through social media bad practices are shared, listened and got helped.

It has become a place to shout out. Today, the third gender are using social media to connect people like them in next corner of the world, and fat girls are inspiring others to wear whatever they want freely, black men and women are speaking about racial injustices, and disadvantaged people are motivating others through their work despite physical weakness. Such activities in social media are empowering people in different parts of the world and make them feel that they are not alone.

Negative Impacts

Before the invention of social media, bad practices still occurred in places, but now the ratio has increased incredibly. Such bad practices used to have an impact on the specific locations, but now the effect is global. Because of the freedom and an ineffective restrictions policy, people are also misusing social media platforms resulting in negative impacts on the mental health such as cyberbullying and suicide, increase in anxiety, low self-esteem, and depression.

In the United States, Ashwanty Davis killed herself after a video of her in a schoolyard fight went viral on the app musically. Davis was only ten years old. Less than a week later, Rosalie Avila who was a 13 years old teen hung herself after receiving abusive online messages.

Similarly, on December 31st, a popular YouTuber Logan Paul posted a video making fun of the body of a man who hung himself in Japan's Akutagawa forest. (Christ, 2018.) These examples are the results of the negative impacts of social media. There are many similar examples throughout the world.

Cyberbullying

Bullying is any unwanted aggressive behaviours(s) toward youth by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance (CDC, 2018). Online bullying allows perpetrators the powerful advantage of anonymity.

When afforded the ability to hide behind a computer screen, perpetrators act without regard for the consequences and feel less accountability and guilt for their actions (Moreno and Strasburger, 2014). The worst of cyberbullying is it can happen anytime, anywhere publicly or privately.

This kind of cruel practices in social media has a direct impact on the psychological health of a targeted person which can lead to the wrong decision of committing suicide in the worst situation. In detail, one study surveyed college students on how often they had experienced electronic bullying behaviours and found that 38% knew someone who had been cyberbullied, 21.9% had been cyberbullied, and 8.6% had acted as a cyberbully (Moreno and Strasburger, 2014).

Cyberbullying causes the feeling of loneliness, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, increase social anxiety and depression. Likewise, emotional distress, anger, sadness, detachment, externalized hostility, and delinquency is also the symptoms seen in cyberbullied person. The popular social media platform such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube are where cyberbullying is widely practiced.

For instance, Amanda Todd, 15 years old, was a Canadian teen who posted a video on YouTube sharing her experiences on bullying both online and in school. In the video, she told a story of how she suffered from the depression and anxiety with the series of white cards.

She had to change the school multiple times, but the bullying continued. After posting the video on YouTube, she committed suicide in 2012. That incident got the attention of the news media globally, (NG, 2012). "We typically, as a school district, don't talk about such deaths, but with the family's endorsement we did choose to do so because it is important to point out the dangers associated with social media and cyber-bullying”, Quinton, spokeswoman for the Coquitlam School District, said (NG, 2012).

In a 2018 summit on cyberbullying prevention hosted by the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention, first lady of the US, Melania Trump pointed out that social media is an inevitable part of our daily lives in today’s global society which can be beneficial but also harmful if misused. She addressed many children and adults are being the victim of cyberbullying, and now it's time to commit ourselves to teach practicing safe social media use for the better future generation.

Melania Trump also introduced “BE BEST” campaign launched in May 2018 which will focus on three main pillars: Well-being, social media use and opioid abuse (Bennett and Klein 2018).

Social Media Addiction (SMA)

The problem of social media addiction has become a global problem in the present era. Social
media platforms are like galaxy; every day we learn a little more about it, and every day it moves a bit further away (Jacobson, 2009).

Social media was developed to provide a platform for communication in its initial stage. Now, they offer so many features that it has become difficult to stay away from them. In one way or other, people are connected to social media.

The excessive use of social media in today's society has created a new problem: the problem of addiction. Social media addiction is becoming very serious and has equated with addictions to hard drugs like heroin and crack cocaine (Woods, 2014).

Furthermore, research has found out that certain activities in social media such as texting and getting a reply, getting likes, notifications and positive comments, releases a chemical ‘dopamine' produced by the brain which is very addictive.

Dopamine is the same chemical that makes feel good when we smoke, drink and gamble. So, social media give the same level of pleasure as drugs and gambling that keep users to involve in social media activities again and again.

This is why the object of addiction becomes more important to an addict than anything in their lives (Nakaya, 2015) such addiction has a direct effect on mental health. Addicts have low self-esteem, feeling of envy, anxiety, sleeping disorder and in the worst situation, they commit a crime.

There are a lot of horrible incidents around the world because of social media addiction. For example, Sushma Goswani was a 24-year-old Indian woman, who committed suicide by hanging herself from a ceiling fan in 2014 after her parents restricted to use Facebook.

Depression, Anxiety and low self-esteem

Depression is a common mental disorder that causes people to experience depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feeling of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy and poor concentration (Mental Health Foundation, 2018).

Likewise, Anxiety is a type of fear usually associated with the thought of a threat or something going wrong in the future but can also arise from something happening right now (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). The relationship between depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem are inter-related.

They can happen at any time, anywhere and from anything. Recently, excessive use of social media is
found to be an essential cause of depression and anxiety. In a survey conducted by Dr. Heather Cleland Woods at Glasgow University, 467 teenagers were questioned on their overall and night-time social media use.

The result revealed that overall social media use, night-time specific use and emotional investment all had a significant impact on quality of sleep linked with the higher level of depression and anxiety. Similarly, a
study of 700 secondary school students in Ottawa found that those who use social network sites
have poor mental health three times more than those who don’t use them (Levy, 2015)

The causes of depression and anxiety among people are varied depending on the perception of the people towards social media. Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is one of the reasons people use social media nowadays. FOMO means fear of missing out among the group of friends, families and specific unions. It is also a fear of being unnoticed. FOMO keep users coming back to social media repeatedly that might even lead to addiction and then to depression.

Checking messages frequently even when there are no messages, keeping an eye on the notification bar
all the time are the symptoms of FOMO. In a TEDx Talks with Bailey Parnell, she said that we ignore simple things such as chatting, tagging, checking notification, and taking selfies in social media because these activities are fun to us, but the problem is such actions are repetitive.

"When a micro-moment happens over, and over time, that's when we have a macro problem,"
she continued (Parnell, 2017) here, she refers to the macro problem as depression. According to WHO report (2018), depression is a common mental disorder with more than 300 million people affected worldwide.

When the depression is at its worst situation, it can lead to suicide. In the same report, it is also said that suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds and every year about 800,000 people die due to suicide.

Depressed people have a certain level of anxiety disorder and low self-esteem as well. The causes of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem via social media can be online harassment, blackmailing,
inappropriate texts or visuals, addiction to the likes and comments and comparison with friends
having a better life.

In the past few years, scholars have carried out various empirical studies investigating the causations and consequences of depression in the context of the use of social media: intensity of social media use, online communication, and online threats.

In a study conducted by Lin et al. (2016), it was found that social media use was significantly associated
with depression. In a similar kind of survey by Scherr and Brunet (2017), the result showed depressive users are likely to spend more time on Facebook (Dhir, 2018).

In another perspective, comparing with friends in social media is also the rising cause of depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem. In recent time, the impossible standard is set much closer to home, not by celebrities and models but, by classmates and friends. These standards for some have become a nightmare because when people see their friend on the social media more beautiful than them and lots of people praising their beauty, people feel that they are not as attractive as their friends.

It creates a problem of body shaming. Another aspect of social media is the highlight reels.

It means showing the best and most enviable moments while concealing the efforts and common element of ordinary life these highlight reels of someone nearby cause low self-esteem to many people.

The result is people try to avoid being social in real life. Therefore, the relationship between depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem is closely related. Depression can cause stress and low self-esteem, anxiety can lead to depression and low self-esteem and vice-versa.

The impact of Internet-Based Platforms on the mental health of young people in the African context - A case of Harare, Zimbabwe.

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