Youth Mental well-being

Is social media good or bad for mental health?

While it can lead to issues like depression, it may also be source of support and information

TikTok influencer Tan Yeo Shi Lee, 22, says comments from followers can make him feel insecure, but he also gains a lot of happiness from seeing how his videos make people laugh.
TikTok influencer Tan Yeo Shi Lee, 22, says comments from followers can make him feel insecure, but he also gains a lot of happiness from seeing how his videos make people laugh.PHOTO: COURTESY OF TAN YEO SHI LEE

With nearly 200,000 followers, 22-year-old TikTok influencer Tan Yeo Shi Lee is sometimes subjected to more scrutiny than his peers when he expresses himself on social media.

The second-year Singapore Management University student said: "It can be as simple as 'this is not funny' or 'you're ugly' and you start wondering whether what they say is true."

Mr Tan said: "Sadly, it can really make you more insecure, though for me, I try not to let it affect me too much and I trust the words of those close to me much more."

Seeing picture-perfect people on social media has also made him more conscious about how he represents himself online.

Mr Tan, who creates videos with his friend Ryan Han, added: "There are obviously many comments on TikTok about us, be it who's better-looking, funnier, has a greater personality, and honestly, it does affect us quite a bit."

Sharing the experience with his collaborator has helped both of them dull the sting of nasty comments.

The Sunday Times spoke to 23 people including social workers, counsellors, psychologists and parents, who said the impact of social media on the mental health of the young in Singapore is concerning.

And not just in terms of cyber bullying.

Mr Cho Ming Xiu, founder and executive director of mental advocacy non-profit group Campus PSY, said most young people find it difficult not to check on their friends on social media and compare their lives.

He added: "You can't just do well in your studies. You have to be an all-rounder - you have to have a good CCA record, secure a good internship at a reputable company.

"This constant competition emphasised by social media channels by their peers - when everyone is posting about good things - exacerbates competition, and young people find it stressful."

Psychologists say the deluge of attractive posts can trigger feelings of inferiority or inadequacy, especially among young people with less experience in differentiating the social media world from real life.

In a ministerial statement last week on the death of a River Valley High School student, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing highlighted the challenges young people face, including the social pressure of the online world in encouraging constant comparison.

Mr Chan, who spoke last Tuesday, noted that young people are already dealing with family and peer relationships, expectations of themselves and their parents, and the difficulties of coping with the rigours of Singapore's education system.

Mental health advocates and social agencies say young people are vulnerable to relying on social media for self-worth and self-image, even as they try to forge their own identity.

Said assistant director of Touch Mental Wellness Andrea Chan: "Seeing good things can draw much envy and comparison, while identification with bad things can lead to a negative spiral."

Getting likes is rewarding for the brain through an increase in dopamine similar to an adrenaline rush, added Dr Emily Ortega.

And the reinforcement of pleasure-seeking posting on social media can result in addiction, said the head of psychology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Ms Lee Yi Ping, principal case manager and programme lead of Community Health Assessment Team, said: "In the event a young person feels disappointed or rejected by the responses received, the distress is often left unnoticed unless the young person openly talks about it with another trusted person."

Support must come from family and friends who can constantly remind the young people that no matter how challenging a life circumstance can be, they can overcome it.

She added: "With timely and appropriate medical and psycho-social interventions by formal sources of support like helping professionals, coupled with informal sources of support like family and friends, young people stand a better chance with recovery and reclaiming of capability to pursue their ambitions in life."

The experts say if these pressures are left unchecked, negative thoughts and feelings from social media can contribute to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Senior counsellor at Jurong Pioneer Junior College Elaine Tay said she had young people telling her that they sought help after an influencer shared that he was seeing a therapist. She said: "I have students who say 'I was following this influencer and he shared that he's going through depression and I would like to get help to get better as well'."

Meanwhile, more mental health advocacy groups and agencies like Re:Mind Singapore have taken to social media in the past five years to provide bite-size information to educate the public about mental health and how to seek help.

In a dialogue last Friday between the Education Minister and students from secondary schools and junior colleges, three young people shared that social media had helped sensitise them to mental health issues.

Mr Steve Loh, founder of e-buddy Myloh, an app which provides evidence-based psychological advice and self-care strategies and helps track mood changes, notes that many young people often need support in the middle of the night when they may not have access to immediate human care.

He said: "From our focus group discussions with young people, we find that there are those who wake up at 2am, with a panic attack, and all they need to do is talk and find something that can help them."

Mr Tan said that social media has been a great way to stay connected with people and make new friends.

The TikTok influencer added that the platform has also allowed him to have an outlet to express his creativity.

He said: "I do gain a lot of happiness from seeing how my videos make people laugh. It keeps me motivated to make more."

Ms Tamlyn Richards, 23, who graduated from James Cook University this year and has over 8,000 followers on TikTok, said: "I've learnt to take a break from social media when I feel it's starting to distract me from present moments and when I start comparing likes or my own appearance to others."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 01, 2021, with the headline 'Is social media good or bad for mental health?'. Subscribe