Social networking sites are a double-edged sword that can have a powerful influence on our overall wellbeing. As virtual communities become interconnected in the digital world, a key question becomes: How can we use social media wisely with the right balance? Social networking and chatting across digital platforms open vast opportunities to connect with others, create new friends, express creativity, and even land better education and job opportunities. However,  social networking platforms also pose risks to our safety and wellbeing. Learn more about online social networking and how to use it safely.

What Is Online Social Networking?

  • Online Social Networking is the use of online websites, social media platforms and chats to stay connected with family, friends, colleagues, customers, and/or clients.
  • It is projected that ≈3.5 billion people are active social media users, which is 45% of the world’s population.
  • In the UAE alone, the internet penetration rate is about 99%, with 9.5 million active internet users. Imagine that a daily average of ≈3 hrs is spent on social media! 
  • What is more amazing in our tech-savvy country, is that almost 92% (or 8.8 Million) are active mobile social media users.  
  • Be further amazed by the following statistics. The UAE has the following numbers of active users :
    • 7.7 million in Facebook, 7.8 million in WhatsApp, 7.4 million in YouTube 
    • 5.0 million in Instagram, 3.9 million in Twitters

The upside:

  • Online Social Networking has many benefits including helping us:
    1. Stay connected with the community
    2. Foster relationships, especially for those who struggle with social skills or face-to-face anxiety. 
    3. Express creativity
    4. Land better education and job opportunities.
    5. Start businesses and promote existing businesses (Online social networking platforms have even evolved as a platform for businesses to understand and connect with customers.)
  • In sum, there can be psycho-social benefits, ranging from emotional support, community building, self-expression and improving ourselves, in addition to economic benefits to online social networking platforms.

The downside

  • On the other hand, social networking, like any other tool, has a downside when not used wisely, or when overused. These risks include:
    1. ‘Feedback seeking’ from over-focusing on the ‘likes of social media.  Overdependence on social validation is dangerous in preventing us from developing our self-identity and inner resilience, independent of external influences. These may also decrease our confidence levels.
    2. Excessive social comparison through social media. This shifts our focus from feeling contented and counting our blessings. Studies have shown that feedback-seeking and social comparisons are associated with depressive symptoms. 
    3. Distorted perception of body image.
      • For example, those who spent more time on social media had 2.2 Xs the risk of reporting body image and eating concerns.
      • Plastic surgeons have noticed a trend of ‘Snapchat dysmorphia’, where people have been asking doctors to make them look more like edited versions of themselves popularized on smartphone apps like Snapchat and Instagram.
    4. Privacy, online harm and cyberbullying
      • Meeting strangers that one doesn’t know in the real life, as this invites unpredictability and the potential of being harmed. Even if online strangers seem to have become online friends, we don’t know who we are truly dealing with it. It is easy to fake an identity online
      • Cyberbullying -Unfortunately due to the ease of anonymity in the digital world, it has become easier to harm others online and commit  terrible acts like cyberbullying.
      • Privacy - If we are not careful about who we share with online, our privacy becomes compromised. It can be tempting to share all aspects of our lives with everyone to get more likes and views, but this makes it easy to be hunted by potential online predators that we are unaware of.
      • Find out more about online harm, cyberbullying and online privacy.
    5. Excessive usage and digital addiction. This can lead to other resultant effects.
      • The more time young adults spend on social media, the greater likelihood of sleeping problems or symptoms of depression.
      • Physical conditions like obesity and diabetes are more likely to develop, in view of a less active lifestyle.
      • Negative associations with academic achievements and is also linked with distraction, procrastination and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder).
      • Poor socioemotional and communication skills, notably a lack of empathy, due to lack of experience in face-to-face interactions
      • Excessive use of smartphones was also associated with social isolation. This seems ironical since technology was created to bring us closer in the first place.

Social networking has become an inseparable part of our lives. How can we embrace it as a positive digital tool, and use it wisely to prevent problematic risks?


Awareness

  • Notice if social media is in general provoking positive emotions. If it starts provoking more negative emotions than positive, and begins draining energy, this is a flag that something is going wrong and you may need to reduce time spent on online social networking,
  • Remember what it means to be a positive digital citizen. Be authentic, live by positive values, and use social media for good purposes to make the most out of online social networking.
  • Be aware of the minimum age to use an online social networking platform before joining.
  • Know where the block and report buttons are in case needed (for example someone posts something nasty, or is cyberbullying).
  • Take frequent digital detoxes, or breaks from online social networking. Be aware of how much time is being spent on online social networking and whether there is a healthy balance to participate in other real life activities. There are apps to help monitor social media usage. Find out more about them in the additional resources section.

Privacy

  • Use strong passwords and change the passwords regularly. Never share passwords with anyone.
  • Check the default privacy settings and set them accordingly.
  • Disenable location services, or limit their use to only close and trusted friends and family, or when absolutely necessary. Most online social networking platforms have location services on by default, which allows user to track each other’s locations
  • Always try to use a non-descriptive image or an alias as a profile icon. Avoid using personal pictures that make it easier to identify the user.
  • Limit connections and the friend/followers list only to trusted friends and family. It is advisable to avoid accepting 'friend‘ requests from strangers that are not friends from the ‘real life’. Be cautious with online users as it is easy to pretend to be someone else. Clean up the followers and following list regularly to make sure they are all trusted contacts.
  • Only use a webcam with trusted family and friends, never with strangers.
  • Avoid ‘oversharing’ and revealing personal details (Your full name, address, phone number, password plans, birthdate, banking information)
    • There are some aspects of our lives that are best communicated in person.
  • Protect your digital footprint and online reputation. Think before you post, chat, upload or download.
    • If we can’t say something nice, we shouldn’t say anything at all”
    • We should ask ourselves if it would be okay for our moms or other family members to see what we upload before posting. If the answer is no, then we probably shouldn’t be posting it at all.

How can we handle challenging situations on online social networking platforms?

If we experience an upsetting or confusing situation on an online social networking platform, it is important to take control and know how to act, depending on the situation.

  1. For cyberbullying on online social networking platforms, please visit the cyberbullying section
  2. For online harm and online child and sexual exploitation, please visit the online harm section
  3. For excessive usage and digital addiction to social networking sites, please visit the screen time section

Did you know?

Interestingly, abundant technology has brought about new psychological states. A study suggested that ‘FOMO’ or the ‘Fear of Missing Out’ is driving social media addiction. FOMO is a feeling that our contacts are leading more interesting lives, hence creating the desire to stay continually connected with what others are doing online.  NOMOPHOBIA stands for NOMObile phone PHOBIA, the fear of being without a mobile phone for fear of losing just that connection.

Did you know?

It is uplifting to hear that popular social media platforms are taking action to mitigate risks. Instagram for instance is testing hiding the “likes” feature to reduce mental pressure and social comparison. Twitter is taking steps to curb hate speech and violent threats. Read more about this in the additional resources section.