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Digital Stress

Digital Stress

Yes, social networking, among others, provides the most cost-effective medium for many people to stay connected with friends and share thoughts with likeminded people. For businesses, social media offers many benefits as it allows companies to reach out to their customers effectively.

While some social media posts are meant to be read and enjoyed others have to be taken with a pinch of salt. For instance, on 12 June, no sooner than the Karnataka Government announced a new tax structure for branded frozen porattas (@ 18% GST) when compared to rotis (@ 5% GST), it was the talking point on the social media platforms. Some took a dig at the tax, others displayed humour. “Are they charging GST on every layer of poratta?” asked one. Another asserted “the fluffy, flaky and crisp poratta is not just a food, it's an emotion”. One post read “the Northie food is taxed less and the Southern hefty”.

Now, let’s come to a much serious matter. The sudden demise of  Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput on June 14 and the outrage witnessed on the social media has triggered several debates. Some Bollywood actors promptly raised their voices on how nepotism was affecting an actor’s career. Meanwhile within two days of his death, the deceased actor’s followers on Instagram shot up by more than two million. While an ongoing investigation is expected to find out what went wrong with Sushant who had fame and was successful in Bollywood. But more importantly his death has reignited the conversation around mental health.

With one in every seven Indian suffering from a metal ailment of varying severity, according to the National Mental Health Survey-2016, the alarm bells are surely ringing. That social media is related to anxiety and depression as studies have shown is a cause for concern. It has been found that the ways in which people engage in social media platforms help to predict how it can influence an individual’s mental health.  Importantly, the way people  use language and express themselves on social media provides clues about their mental health status. For instance, people who post positive messages have high quality interactions and are less likely to suffer from anxiety or depression. Some specific behaviours’ contribute to or detract from overall mental health.

Digital stress caused by negative interactions in emails, texts, social media, chat rooms and forums seems to be adversely impacting a large number of people of all ages. A Harvard University study has identified two types of digital stress. The first type is seen as an expression of hostility, meanness and cruelty. It includes mean and harassing personal attacks (Usually anonymous, hateful messages directed at an individual); public shaming and humiliation (Humiliating messages about an individual that are posted in a public way) and impersonation (Pretending to be someone else either by hacking someone’s account or by creating a fake account). The second type has been found to encompass stresses related to navigating closeness in relationships and includes feeling smothered (It occurs when one person feels overwhelmed by someone sending excessive messages).

Pressure to comply with requests for access (It means feeling pressure from a friend or significant other to give them access to online accounts or to send sexual messages or nude pictures as a symbol of trust); breaking and entering into digital accounts and devices (That is going through someone’s texts, pictures, emails, or online accounts on their phone or computer without their permission).

What causes stress? As some reports suggests, it is the anxiety of making important life decisions. And many seem to suffer from decision paralysis. In teenagers, the top three sources of stress for girls in particular were exam results (57%), making decisions about the future (37%) and arguments with friends (36%). A quarter of young people with emotional and behavioural difficulties have a parent with a mental health problem. The findings of a recent Canadian study which attempted to examine social media use and suicidal thinking in middle and high school children in Ottawa found that during the prior 12 months, of those who reported low use of social-networking sites such as Instagram and Facebook, only 5.5% seriously considered attempting suicide, while the proportion jumped to 24.9% for those visiting these sites for more than two hours each day. People who interacted with former romantic partners on social media were more likely to experience anxiety or depression compared to those who did not.  While overall use of social media affects the quality of sleep, those who log on at night to respond to alerts are particularly affected. However, it remains unclear whether social media hampers sleep, or if individuals turn to social media because they can’t sleep for some other reason.

While disposing a bail application last month,  perturbed by the increasing number of social media confrontations using abusive and obscene words, the Kerala High Court directed the state government to “wake up” and “enact a law” to curtail the same. It observed that “If one person posts a defamatory or lascivious comment on social media, others, instead of approaching the police, would respond to the same with more vulgar words. There is no end to it. This is a situation where the rule of law will fail and lead to the emergence of parallel societies which are not concerned about the rule of law. This is a grave situation.”

Beyond widely being used to comment and argue, social media is also ruthlessly exploited by some overzealous individuals as a platform to settle scores. They create discord, by initiating quarrels or post controversial and inflammatory messages which is commonly called trolling. When many journalists were subjected to vicious trolling on social media platforms after the Pulwama attack, the Department of Telecommunications facilitated in bringing such abusive individuals to book.

It needs to be appreciated that social media affects people’s mental health in complex ways. However, understanding the content and quality of social media interactions can help to identify people with anxiety and depression. Used in a positive way, social media can help alleviate mental health symptoms.  Nonetheless, as social media has an unthinkable impact on everything, be it for the positive or negative, there is an imperative need for its judicial use . Spending hours together on social media apps or web sites ought to be avoided. As its obsession can lead to more mental health symptoms, moderation is the key.

(Published on 22nd June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 26)