Memta Jagtiani

Memta Jagtiani, a PhD Student specialising in social media and wellbeing, discusses the role of family life in relation to these two things.

As a student of Population Health, in my final year dissertation I explored the interplay of family belonging and social media on the mental health and wellbeing of young adults aged 16 to 21 in the UK. I also explored how family belonging and social media use separately influence mental health and found that increased time spent on social media was associated with mental ill-health over time.

In fact, social media use had stronger links with mental ill-health and lower wellbeing in the group with a weaker sense of family belonging at one time point. However, when participants had some sense of family belonging, using social media was more beneficial for their wellbeing than not using it. This suggests that family belonging, to some extent, contributes to the positive effect of social media use on mental health and wellbeing.

Social Media, Family Life and Wellbeing

Social Media. It’s probably the first thing you check when you wake up in the morning and the last thing you see before sleeping. Social media is so pervasive and many people get carried away using it, as the initial minutes turn into hours. The subconscious scrolling through your phone during mundane hours of the day often feels like nothing until the temptation is removed.

Recently, there has been a lot of media interest in the potentially harmful effects of social media, given its popularity. Perhaps social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram should carry a health warning. However, there can also be benefits.

Young adults may use social media in ways that can improve or worsen mental health. It has the power to simultaneously strengthen the quality of friendships and be a breeding ground for cyberbullying. What I find missing from this debate is the role of family life. How does family life seep into social media use and jointly affect one’s mental health?

Stimulation Effect of Social Media

The stimulation effect states that social media use improves wellbeing by maintaining existing friendships, thereby enhancing 'social capital' (social relations that have productive benefits). Studies have shown that this effect tends to dominate in active users as they tend to treat social media as a supplement to their existing relationships. Those who do not use it cannot benefit from the enhanced social capital.

In addition, social media can be used for knowledge enquiry in education and health. For example, a study found that the use of Facebook to facilitate discussion of course material among students at university significantly improves students’ success and satisfaction. Such interaction optimises learning opportunities and is thus beneficial to one’s wellbeing.

Social media can also provide a safe space for Internet users to discuss sensitive health concerns such as Sexually Transmitted Infections and mental health issues, thereby 'bridging their social capital' (associations that bridge the gap between communities, groups, or organisations) by providing a supportive online network.

Displacement Effect of Social Media

The displacement effect states that time spent on social media results in time forgone on other activities such as outdoor sports or socialising in person. This displacement effect can be harmful to one’s wellbeing as the quality of existing relationships may suffer.

Studies have shown that passive and addictive users are more likely to have poorer wellbeing as they are predisposed to experiencing upward social comparison (when people compare themselves to people who they percieve to be better than they are).

Lastly, cyberbullying – the deliberate exchange of malicious forms of digital media to someone else – is the most common online hazard among teenagers. It can cause psychosocial problems such as depression and anxiety.

In my research, the number of family meals was one of the statistically significant markers of family belonging. Non-users of social media who had no family meals could be spending more time outdoors hence faring better on mental health and wellbeing than social media users who had no family meals. This adds a possible explanation for the displacement effect – social media users with weaker family ties are predisposed to the displacement effect.

My research also suggested that there might be optimal hours of social media use, indicating that the stimulation effect may depend on hours of use. Wellbeing is bolstered by family belonging when young adults use social media, suggesting the synergizing effect of having family meals and using social media.

There is little doubt that social media is affecting family belonging on a day-to-day level. Children are constantly messaging one another, scrolling through their news feeds and surfing their favourite websites.

The advent of mobile technology has not restricted this occurrence to the home. Such behaviour can be seen dining with family in restaurants, capturing the perfect Insta Story when holidaying abroad, in fact, anywhere there’s a mobile signal. That said, parents may be equally guilty of the yawning gap between them and their children as parents slowly but surely gain comfort and proficiency with social media, which their digitally-native children are well acquainted with.

Interestingly, instead of bridging the gap by spending more face-to-face time with their children, a new phenomenon has emerged in cyberspace, which involves parents “friending” their children on social media sites such as Facebook. Some parents do so to keep track of their children’s online social life, while others use it simply to be closer to their child, especially if they live physically apart. Whatever the reason, it is evident that family dynamics are constantly evolving alongside technological innovation.

Further research into the realm of social media is crucial as social media use is here to stay, especially among young adults. This is also a vulnerable period in adult development as many health-related behaviours in youth impact health outcomes in adulthood.

Perhaps future research could explore the types of social media use in relation to family belonging. For example, while studies have shown that active users benefit from the stimulation effect, it is possible that active use may lead to a displacement effect if it results in fewer family meal times.

In addition, research should also encompass a variety of youth ages. For example, while some studies found a significant and positive correlation between social networking sites and depression in high school students, other studies have not found the same relationship in older adolescents.

The digital and social landscape of youth is constantly evolving; therefore, it would become paramount to educate young adults and their parents and guardians on the potential consequences of social media on their wellbeing, both in the immediate timeframe and in adulthood, to improve population health. It definitely doesn’t do any harm to go cold turkey for the Scroll Free September campaign, and it may even allow you to spend more quality time with your near and dear ones!