Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Is Social Media the Answer to Mental Health Problems? Do Masks Play a Role?

Always available with hundreds or thousands of listening ears and scanning eyes, social media has taken over communications, but has it always provided a benefit?

Social media is the ultimate equalizer. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage. — Amy Jo Martin

Agreeing with Dickens when he wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” we look for hope in a time of darkness. Where can we find it as we wait? Technology may hold some hope.

As we mask up, researchers have a field day because of the plethora of factors to investigate. What about masks? Do they provide a means to hide our emotions on Facetime, create a new acceptance of people, or cause furtherance of backing off?

If we’re using social media and showing a portion of our faces, aren’t most of our faces and expressions covered by a mask? All good questions and researchers are probably on it.

Masks do affect how we perceive someone and what kind of interaction we will have. A mask removes our ability to perceive the entire face with all its characteristics — features we depend on to make our assessment of them. And masks cause problems not solely for us but for AI’s famed facial recognition algorithms.

Facial recognition software is particularly bad at recognizing African Americans and other ethnic minorities, women, and young people, often misidentifying or failing to identify them, disparately impacting certain groups. That’s when masks aren’t even in the equation. Add masks and it become more difficult.

Photo by Zach Vessels

Prior research on facial expressions and perception has depended on mouth curvature and similar facial movements, all hidden by masks. Our understanding of others, their intentions, and our communication are all affected by masks — and that can make us uncomfortable, anxious, or depressed; perhaps all three.

Most existing emotion-recognition systems analyze an individual’s facial expression…For example, if the corners of a person’s mouth are raised, the machine might rule that the person is in a good mood, whereas a wrinkled nose suggests anger or disgust.

One study did look at the effect of masks and made an assumption that waits to be tested.

Importantly, the inclusion of masks also led to a qualitative change in the way masked faces are perceived. In particular, holistic processing, the hallmark of face perception, was disrupted for faces with masks, as suggested by a reduced inversion effect.

The researchers believe that “…we provide novel evidence for quantitative and qualitative alterations in the processing of masked faces that could have significant effects on daily activities and social interactions.”

They didn’t pose an interesting question: how will being seen without a mask affect our newer social media relationships? Will it have any effect at all?

The Social Media Effect and Our Emotions

Every day, masks or not, the number of social media users increases. Every second, 11 people use social media for the first time.

In total, in North America, we spend an average of two hours, six minutes each day on social media, but this is an average, and many people may exceed that number of hours and minutes in their need to be rid of FOMO (fear of missing out). FOMO, in fact, is often a highly depression-evoking feeling.

The World Health Organization has proffered that the average global lifespan is 73.4 years. Based on that number of years and the amount of time we spend on social media, some estimate that we will spend six years and eight months using social media for whatever interests or ails us.

What’s the estimated world wide use of social media? “In 2020, there are an estimated 3.8 billion social media users worldwide, representing half the global population.

But does social media affect us in positive or negative ways, or should we forget this entirely? We know it’s being used as therapist substitutes. So, there’s one potential benefit. If there aren’t therapists in an area, bots may be able to pick up the slack. Bots to the rescue, as it were.

Photo by Prateek Katyal

Social Media Platform Use

Facebook and YouTube dominate this landscape, as notable majorities of U.S. adults use each of these sites. At the same time, younger Americans (especially those ages 18 to 24) stand out for embracing a variety of platforms and using them frequently. Some 78% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat, and a sizeable majority of these users (71%) visit the platform multiple times per day. Similarly, 71% of Americans in this age group now use Instagram and close to half (45%) are Twitter users. But those stats apply to 2018. What will it be in 2021?

Are there some solid reasons to use social media to help maintain your mental health, especially during trying times? It seems there are a number of them.

A study by a research team at Harvard University looked at the effects both positive and negative of social media and determined two things were important, the frequency and duration of use, and the number of contacts.

Social media, they found, was integrated into social and emotional connections, and there were three outcomes which they found salient; social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health. As a result of this research, their conclusion was that routine use of emotional connection with social media could have positive outcomes.

Social well-being was especially connected to three factors of age, education, and income. However, there was one intriguing finding. Social well-being and social media decrease with age.

the study joins the few prior studies that have shown that beyond frequency and duration of use, (and) other aspects of use, such as type of use, should be considered in characterizing the link between social media use and health.

Photo by Florian Glawogger

The Benefits and Potential Harm Need Further Exploration

There are benefits to being able to maintain contact to dispel loneliness, to play games to enhance skills and relieve boredom and to reach out for immediately help in a mental health crisis, that’s clear now to everyone or nearly everyone.

Social media allows anyone to join a group, engage in open communication on topics of interest, disseminate medical information, provide details on healthy lifestyles, recruit subjects for research, build communities, work for social change, and learn any subjects at any time of the day or night. It’s enormity is incredible.

But there are harms, too, and we need to balance both the positive and the negative and maintain some balance and recognize the problems.

We also know that social media can be used for not spreading truth but dangerous faux information, aka lies. This is how the virtual mask of social media plays into the hands of those with nefarious aims. A technology that was intended to connect the world and allow knowledge to be free for all, has proven to have a darker side.

Social media is a really awesome tool that can be used in so many positive ways. But, people NEED to consider the negative aspects to it as well. People should think about the consequences of the things they post or read on social media. Most importantly, we need to talk about these issues.

Don’t people hide behind the “masks” that social media provides? Do people really think it is without dire consequences if they publish highly personal information about themselves and others? We’ve received wake-up calls but not everyone is hearing them and the young and naive are vulnerable.

At this point, it would be premature to view the benefits of social media as outweighing the possible harms, when it is clear from the studies…that social media use can have negative effects on mental health symptoms, can potentially expose individuals to hurtful content and hostile interactions, and can result in serious consequences for daily life, including threats to employment and personal relationships. The harm and the benefits are real and we must accept both.

The question of age and gender, too, in addition to older adults, needs further exploration as noted in one study of 10–15 boys and girls.

High levels of social media interaction in early adolescence have implications for well-being in later adolescence, particularly for females. The lack of an association among males suggests other factors might be associated with their reduction in well-being with age. And this relationship in gender requires further exploration in order to address the factors involved in girls and well-being.

Social media is a great benefit, but it’s a “friend” we must carefully evaluate to parse out the good with the not-so-good. Use it, but beware not to let it abuse you as you do.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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