KUCHING: The advancement of technology has seen the rise of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube ― to name a few ― to the extent that it is rather rare to encounter individuals in urban regions without at least one social media account these days.
Citing Global Digital Report 2019, psychiatrist Dr Bernard Ting said the number of digital users has surged, with active social media users increasing globally by nine percent to about 3.5 billion compared to statistics in 2018.
He said that the top users from the age group of 18 to 34 years old spent an average of two hours and 16 minutes on social media daily.
“Malaysian youngsters are even more worrying. Based on the Internet Users Survey 2018 conducted by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the overall respondents spent 6.6 hours online daily,” he said, adding that younger respondents spent up to eight hours in a day online.
Dr Ting, who is also a medical lecturer at the Department of Psychological Medicine at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (Unimas), said that the advancement in social media technology has brought an added level of convenience to the digital community.
“Not only does it offer youth an instant and low-cost portal to obtain information, social media platforms serve as teaching tools to extend learning opportunities as well. You do not need to take an extra 20 to 30 minutes of travel time merely to attend a class,” he said.
He added that through social media, youth could share and exchange their ideas or interests and expand their social connections while communicating with people from diverse backgrounds.
This, he said, was an important step for them to learn values such as respect and tolerance, which would enhance their social skills.
While such exposure to the internet for the younger generation at such a pliable stage of their development can be beneficial, it is not without its hazards as well.
A recent case which depicts the potential dangers of social media was one in which a teenager in Serian accidentally shot his grandmother with a homemade air rifle fabricated by his brother via information gained from YouTube.
Dr Ting said that social media users, especially youth, were at risk of being influenced by violent content and may mimic inappropriately dangerous actions projected in movies or videos, which seemed to have transpired in the reported case.
Aside from this, entering the realm of social media opens the doors to cyberbullying.
“Cyberbullying takes place when someone purposely spreads fake, embarrassing, or hostile information to another party. Following that, the victims may end up with profound psychological outcomes such as depression, anxiety, and suicide,” he explained.
He pointed out that teenagers also tended to have limited capacity to self-regulate and could be vulnerable to the problematic use of social media.
“They tend to overspend their time on social media, thus neglecting important tasks in their daily lives, such as spending quality time with their loved ones and exercising,” he said.
Dr Ting emphasised that parental monitoring was essential in order to reduce the risk of adolescents falling into the hidden traps of social media.
“Parents are encouraged to discover social media together with their children. This helps them to develop a positive attitude towards social media apart from enhancing bonding with their children,” he said.
He said that this joint-discovery process could facilitate the sharing of positive and negative experiences between parents and children.
Meanwhile, he stressed the imperative step of setting rules and boundaries to address the tendency of youth to lack sufficient self-regulation.
“Parents should try to reach an agreement with their children on the duration of social media visits and the proper way to go about the disclosure of personal information.
“They should also discuss appropriate behaviour towards others when gaming, chatting, or messaging, and talk about the risks associated with meeting strangers or online friends in person,” he said.
According to Dr Ting, studies had shown that a higher amount of screen time was associated with a host of mental health problems including sleep difficulty, smartphone or internet addiction, anxiety, and depression.
He advised that limiting the use of gadgets to a cut-off point of 30 minutes prior to bedtime was recommended, and parents themselves should adhere to such a rule.
On the other hand, he remarked that over-restriction was something to be wary of, as this could pose fears among youths that social media was bad.
“Parents should not be too critical or overreact towards youths using social media technology. Remember, with proper use, the benefits of social media outweigh the risks,” he said.
Instead, he urged parents to guide their children in building a healthy habit that would benefit them for a lifetime through obtaining educational and recreational resources via social media.
He noted that numerous mobile applications enabled parental control in a child’s device to filter web content, analyse online activities, and even detect cyberbullying.
“Despite all these measures, kids are kids. They may make mistakes using social media. Take this as an opportunity to correct their errors with empathy,” said Dr Ting.
Nevertheless, he stressed that parents played a crucial role to observe their children’s behaviour meticulously as activity such as sexting (sending sexual content), bullying, or posting self-harm images could be a red flag for upcoming issues.
On his advice to youth, he encouraged them to communicate with their parents or adults regarding their needs or whether adjustments were required.
“Social media can be a double-edged sword. It can be a blessing or a curse. I urge parents and youths to be aware of their responsibilities to make social media a safer and useful environment,” he said.