Do you upload a picture on Facebook, then refresh the page every few minutes to see the responses from your ‘friends’? Do your fingers itch to update a status message every other day, or maybe even every few hours — all in the hope of attracting ‘likes’?

Mental health experts are keenly watching the growing popularity of social media. There are those who warn that the act of connecting and interacting online has virtually spawned an alternative social world, with worrying implications for real-world relationships.

In fact, Psychology of Technology is an emerging area of study for Dr Larry Rosen of George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory, California State University. Over email, Rosen, who is also the author of iDisorder — Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, says, “We are now looking at the psychological impact of Facebook as a combination of addiction and obsession. It is an addiction because neuroscience research is showing that viewing your own Facebook page does give your brain a squirt of dopamine, which our mind interprets as pleasure and is the root sign of an addictive behaviour.”

His studies show that there are three kinds of social networking activity: general (reading updates, commenting, clicking on the ‘like’ button among others), impression management (checking in, updating profile, posting status), and befriending. Excessive use, unrealistically high number of ‘friends’, and obsession with impression management could indicate signs of mania, according to Rosen. On the other hand, a healthy number of friends indicates the unlikelihood of depression. “Social media is a lot about me, me, me. Studies have shown that Twitter users are more likely to be ‘meformers’ — talking about me, than ‘informers’ — talking about others or events or information. This is a symptom of early narcissism.”

Dr Laxmi Vijaykumar, founder and director of suicide prevention helpline Sneha, says many teens and young adults tend to feel suicidal when their private life is unwittingly exposed through this medium. “There should be a limit on expressing personal updates. A college student felt very humiliated and suicidal when a trivial fight that was resolved at school was later blown out of proportion on a social networking site.”

And, naturally, parents are a worried lot and look for appropriate ways to deal with such situations. “Parents must be aware of their children’s online exposure and activities by engaging in a conversation with their kids on technology usage, as cyber bullying is on the rise,” says Laxmi.

Pointing out that social media does have its benefits for certain types of people, Dr Roshan Jain, Psychiatrist and De-addiction Specialist at Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore, however warns of the dangers of overindulgence. “Social media is enabling certain individuals to articulate and communicate in a manner they would otherwise avoid or hesitantly engage in. But, at the same time, it is contributing to our ever-increasing isolated existence, and poorer development of personality. It may be a venting window, even a therapeutic outlet for emotions and feelings for many.”

The flip side is a growing sense of disconnect from the real world and real people. “It is a substitute for one-on-one communication… we lose precious moments of exploration and awareness of immediate things, and start to prefer virtual life over the real one,” says Jain.

Rosen suggests ways to draw a line to enjoy a healthy social networking life: “The best way to deal with the situation is to recognise that technology over-stimulates your mind. It is vital to ‘rest your brain’ from technology for 10-15 minutes every hour or two. Engage in offline activities such as a walk, music, verbal chat with peers...” And don’t hesitate to reach out for help. As Jain explains, “Consider consulting a specialist when behaviour is incessant, as there might be an underlying unattended emotional or psychological issue.”

Right connections

Be aware of your usage. Track time online with a stopwatch or other automatic programs. Take heed if others say you spend too much time on social networking sites.

Share things in person and have a real-life social group.

Prioritise the day, and ensure you have a busy calendar to keep out boredom.

Have one medium — either phone or computer — for social media use.

Avoid reinforcement. Social networking sites allow you to appreciate updates and pictures of your friends. While some reinforcement is important for motivation, this is better done in person.

Post pictures or status messages with the appropriate privacy settings to deflect unwanted attention.

Parent’s eye

Monitor your child’s online activity, but at a friendly distance and not by ‘friending’ them or looking over their shoulders.

Talk to them about their opinion on various technologies, as this builds trust and the children will open up if they feel uncomfortable about anything on the sites.

Ideally your child’s online activity should be restricted to a desktop computer at home, where supervision is possible.

(This article was published on November 22, 2012)
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