Social Media Addiction and the Plight of the Vulnerable

Published On: May 1, 2023 08:30 AM NPT By: Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Fr. Augustine Thomas, S.J.

Father Augustine Thomas has a PhD in ‘Leadership Studies in Organization Development’ and currently serves as the Principal of St. Xavier’s College, Maitighar, Kathmandu.

We have reached an age where digital detoxing needs to be made a part of a person’s life in order to live a mentally healthy life. Detoxing refers to taking a temporary break from an unhealthy habit. Digital detoxing has become a need for those who excessively use social media and the internet. .

“In the age of Facebook and Instagram, you can observe this myth-making process more clearly than ever before, because some of it has been outsourced from the mind to the computer. It is fascinating and terrifying to behold people who spend countless hours constructing and embellishing a perfect-self online, becoming attached to their own creation, and mistaking it for the truth about themselves.”

- Yuval Noah Harari, ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’

Hardship strengthens the weak, while convenience weakens the strong. A convenience that emerged as a way of quickly connecting people from slow-moving posted letters to quick communication through social media has been a breakthrough in connecting people. Realistically speaking, the once-good news of social media has established itself as an unmovable dictator of human psychology today. The convenience of connecting people through the internet and cutting-edge gadgets has turned out to be the major factor in disintegrating persons themselves.

What went wrong?

Facebook, one of the earliest social media platforms, was rolled out in American universities between 2004 and 2006. It gained popularity among youngsters as they could easily connect with people, interact with them instantly, and post photos, news, and videos. The attraction toward social media grew rapidly. The added features to react to and comment on the posts attracted more users and kept them occupied on the website for longer hours. Commenting and receiving positive comments played as a much-needed validation for many users. Some were more interested in observing what was happening in others’ lives. Personal lives were soon found to be sold to the public, eventually leading people to rationalize posting both positive and negative content on social media. A paradoxical honesty! The sense of privacy lost its original meaning for many. Over 4.3 billion people worldwide now have various social media accounts, and each person spends an average of two and a half hours on social media daily. As the saying goes, “The most beautiful fruit may contain a worm in it”, social media had the worm that altered the psychology of many users.

A recent research on ‘Social Media and Mental Health’ by Luca Braghieri et al. published in the American Economic Review (2022) vividly spells out the consequences of the use of social media on mental health. The elaborate research conducted on Facebook users and their mental health in American universities derived that the students who are in the Facebook world are more susceptible to mental illness and have a significant increase in depression diagnoses. Disillusioning social media comparisons between oneself and others have led people to assess themselves based on the not-so-true online lives of others. Users even end up feeling like losers in life while others are progressing, solely based on the success and happy stories shared on the platform. It was also noted that social media use disrupts concentration levels.

The viciousness of algorithm

What makes social media attractive is how immediately it addresses the psychological needs of the user. The weaker the user’s mental health, the more power the internet has over them. Ironically, this is the marvelous result of the algorithm that makes the internet more user-friendly. Algorithms are the very gene of social media. It is scary to know that the social media world already knows what you need, yet like a fly drawn to the flame of a candle, vulnerable individuals flock to the social media world only to be engulfed by it. The algorithm of social media can analyze your social media behavior much more cleverly than a human person, and the user is often captivated by the magic spell of the algorithm effect.

The Netflix documentary ‘Social Dilemma’ points out that addiction is built into social media and that the algorithms are carefully designed to succeed in this objective. Tristan Harris says in the documentary, “It [algorithm] has its own goals and it has its own way of pursuing them [users] by using your psychology against you.”

Digital detoxing

We have reached an age where digital detoxing needs to be made a part of a person’s life in order to live a mentally healthy life. Detoxing refers to taking a temporary break from an unhealthy habit. Digital detoxing has become a need for those who excessively use social media and the internet. A study conducted on the ‘Characteristics of Social Media Detoxification Among the University Students’ by Joseph El-Khoury et al. (2021) depicts the realization of the importance of social media detox. The study states that “… a correlation was found between being told by others that you spend too much time on social media and your own beliefs. Despite the majority not believing that time spent had a negative impact on academic performance, physical activity, and relationships, 40% of the sample had undergone a period of digital detox.” There is a clear sense of denial of the behavior while still addressing the very issue they deny. This is not far from the truth of the youth in Nepal either. Those students who have good control over their engagement with social media have invested their time in more focused study and engaged in creative group activities.

Detoxing is a neurological need

The recovery of mental wellness is a deliberate processing of the behavioral patterns of the individual. An unhealthy behavior that has crossed the line into addiction carefully needs to be reversed. Social media addiction deforms the inner wirings and structure of the brain the same way alcohol or drug addiction does. An addiction automatically affects our mental health and relationships, weakens the concentration level of the individual, and above all, narrows down life to self-centered priorities. Social media addiction is no different. Therefore, for healthy social and personal living, detoxing social media is a need.

A popular method used for detoxing is the ‘cold turkey’ method in which compulsive behavior is abruptly and completely stopped. In the context of social media addiction, it would mean deleting all social media accounts (at least deleting from cell phones and using them only on computers). Every detox calls for a safer alternative. In the case of digital detox, nurturing face-to-face friendship time and being actively engaged in various productive work are empowering alternatives. Additionally, it’s by returning to the treasure of the inner strength of a person and reminiscing the sweetness of one’s unique talents and hobbies that the behavioral pattern can be reshaped into a healthier one.


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