Social media has become a daily habit in most people’s lives. Individuals across different age groups use social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter for communication and networking, and Indians spend approximately 2.4 hours of a day on social media alone. Young individuals aged 18-24 years spend excessive time on these applications – with Facebook and Instagram having 97.2 million and 69 million users from this age group alone in India, clearly showcasing growing dependency on social media. The constant use leads to exposure to risky content, changes in behavioural patterns, feeling of inferiority and even cyberbullying, resulting in grave mental health challenges and illnesses.
The discussion on mental health in India is not addressed seriously, and faces stigma and neglect. While challenges faced by the youth are manifold, there is an underlying practice of brushing issues under the carpet, inability to voice opinions and seek support, leading to grave personal issues. According to UNICEF, 1 in 7 Indians aged 15 to 24 years feel depressed. Depression is linked to lack of self-esteem, poor concentration and other maladaptive symptoms, and can lead to difficulties in communication, failure to work or study productively, amplified risk of substance use and abuse, as well as suicidal thoughts. One of the key risk factors for these prevalent rates of depression is social media.
As social beings, humans inherently have a need for belonging and social acceptance, and social media often becomes a tool for validation. The number of likes one’s posts or images garners becomes a quantitative measure for many, in relation to their looks, intelligence, and even extends to their worth as a person. Individuals strive to maintain an ‘internet persona’ which paints a rosy picture of one’s life, using filters to hide parts considered ‘not good enough’. Body dysmorphia is common among young people and has increased over the past few years. The challenge worsens with the use of algorithms on these platforms forcing people to only watch similar content. There are certain fitness motivation posts that are linked to greater bulimia, obsessive exercise, and a higher proportion of people, who are at risk of being diagnosed with a clinical eating disorder.
Instagram leads to body image issues by developing an intrinsic urge for comparison. This is felt worse by women & young girls who are often socialised into prioritising their looks over other features. A study in the Times Journal found that around 32% of teenage girls reported that when they ‘felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.’ Further, a Facebook internal research found that at least 43% of their users felt a pressure to post things that make them ‘look good’, and exacerbated body image issues for 1 in every 3 teenage girls.
A recent example is when the youth in India contributed to building guides, verifying phone numbers for food and hospital beds, during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic when the country witnessed the biggest ever case-load. In these cases, we must remember that the strong will and resilience of the individuals involved in the change trumps the challenges.
The power of a tool is only as good as how we use it. It is imperative to address the systemic and current challenges to regulate social media use, especially restricting it for pre-teens. We must also take action on mental health seriously and monitor the incidence of psychiatric disorders (like, depression, anxiety) and identify the factors of risk and resilience. There is a need to conduct a disaggregated situational assessment of the diverse young demographic in our country, keeping in mind the differences associated with class, gender and other social factors. This would help in locating the mental health challenges faced by them and develop policy and program solutions for the same.
However, the first focus needs to be on creating awareness and dialogue that would help in de-stigmatising the issue, in order to allow autonomy for the individual to share feelings in a safe space. Support systems like family and peers, need to be equipped with understanding the factors related to the issue and initiate supportive steps. Additionally, to address the structural challenges, there is a need to reimagine the workspace and educational frameworks. It is pertinent to remember that social characteristics impact the needs of individuals differently and thus the methods of intervention should be planned accordingly.
(Dr Sukriti Chauhan, Public Health Advocate and CEO, ETI Services; Ms Shireen Yachu, Senior Research Analyst, ETI Services)
This piece is in association with ETI Services.