Social media use still key for isolated people despite WHO findings

Despite the HBSC study showing high levels of problem social media use in Malta, experts caution against using the findings against the beneficial uses of social media

Maltese teens have a higher than average problematic relationship with social media, according to an international Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study published by the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

The study found that among 13-year-old olds, 20% of girls and 13% of boys were problematic social media users. The figures remained relatively similar for 15-year-olds with 18% of girls and 17% of boys labelled as problematic social media users. Eleven-year-olds ranked second.

Problematic social media use is characterised by addiction-like symptoms such as loss of control over one’s use of social media at the expense of other important life domains, including relationships with peers and parents, and hobbies.

Dr Albert Bell, a senior lecturer in the Faculty for Social Wellbeing, has however cautioned on trying to analysing the figures, saying it is important to not disregard the strengths and benefits of social media.

“It is a very strong source of outreach for many people, who may not be able to communicate with others. The COVID-19 situation exacerbates all of this,” Bell said.

Bell argued that social media has encouraged persons suffering from loneliness and solitude to reach out to others, especially those who otherwise would not have the opportunity.

“I would be cautious in regards to the media frenzy that tends to follow such studies, which try to create a story which deviates from the non-problematic aspects and the beneficial aspects of social media. This is crucial to understand,” he said.

Bell explained that while studies may find a correlation between social media use and various social and physiological problems such as mental health conditions like depression, they don’t necessarily establish a causal relationship – that is, the belief that one event results in the occurrence of another, subsequent event, behaviour, or belief.

“What I am saying is, it’s quite obvious that persons who suffer from depression, also suffer from loneliness and from solitude – and so they tend to have an increased proclivity to reach out and use social media as a tool to communicate, interact and engage. In fact, it often acts as a substitute for face to face contact, because there isn’t any other alternative.”

Bell said, however, that there were circumstances when extreme dependencies were created – and that was when problematic aspects came in – as it then starts to overtake other aspects of one’s life which are important such as physical exercise and so on.  “However, we need to make sure we do not pigeon-hole behaviours and give them this problematic label quite loosely.”

Persons with intellectual disabilities

Dr Claire Azzopardi Lane, head of department in Disabilities Studies at the University of Malta, says people with disabilities often find themselves using social media when they don’t have friends and feel more isolated.

“Because they are isolated, they are using social media more, posting very personal things… we find young people sharing things that are personal, some not understanding that they are putting themselves as risk,” she said.

Persons with disabilities may rely more on social media now more than ever as one of the only ways of communicating and interacting with the world out there. “They have been particularly affected by COVID-19 because many of them have secondary medical issues which don’t allow them to go out.”

Azzopardi Lane cautioned however against listing persons with intellectual disability as ‘vulnerable’.

“I don’t want people to think that persons with intellectual disability are ‘intrinsically vulnerable’ because they may find themselves in situations that can them make vulnerable, because this is something that could happen to everyone.

Still, Azzopardi Lane felt that more restrictions should be put into place in regards to hate speech on platforms such as Tik Tok which remains unregulated unlike other platforms such as Facebook, which to an extent do monitor hate speech. Azzopardi Lane suggested a learning platform tailored to persons with disabilities could include the safe use of social media.

Bell said that in order to begin remedying problematic social media usage, awareness had to be raised on the problematic aspects of excessive use as well as promoting a certain type of lifestyle – which he says may be difficult under the current COVID-19 social distancing measures.

“In a nutshell: education and awareness from a fairly young age, as well as training professionals to be able to detect early signs of problematic usage.”

READ MOREMaltese teens have highest problem social media usage, WHO report finds

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