In 2015, Mr Fabio Ogachi, a psychologist and lecturer at Kenyatta University’s Department of psychology, noticed a trend: People that were addicted to the internet showed various symptoms of depression. He noted that pathological internet users often exhibited negative consequences such as problematic social relationships, poor academic performance and psychological disturbance.
He proceeded to study the relationship between depression and pathological internet use, and published his findings in a paper titled: “Relationship between depression and pathological internet use among university students in Kenya”.
One of the conclusions he arrived at was that about 17 per cent of Kenyan youth are heavily addicted to the internet, and close to a quarter (23 per cent) of the respondents in the research were wrestling with severe depression.
Even though the study found a weak link between internet use and depression, Mr Ogachi insists that emerging technology can lead to the deterioration of one’s mental health. He fingers social media as the main culprit in the increased prevalence of social and personality disorders.
“Researchers have already proven that the increase in use of social media correlates with a surge of mental afflictions such as depression and anxiety. What is currently under debate is whether depression increases social media use, or whether the increase in social media use is to blame for the rise in depression,” Mr Ogachi says.
Four years down the line, Mr Ogachi has been working to develop a framework for responsible internet use and raising awareness about internet addiction.
“Chronic addiction to social media use affects our health, relationships, studies and careers. We need to educate ourselves on how to lead digitally minimal lives if we want to live holistically,” the don states.
Voyeurism and exhibitionism
Social media, Mr Ogachi notes, is addictive as it panders to two of our most compelling psychological instincts — voyeurism and exhibitionism. Exhibitionism is the desire to always present oneself to other people in the best light possible. “We all want to look good to others. That’s why we always wear our best clothes or want to drive the fanciest vehicles. This need for exhibitionism pulls us towards social media where we post heavily edited pictures and post status updates that will make us seem intelligent to our peers,” the psychologist says.
“Voyeurism, on the other hand, is the evolutionary trait that makes us interested in the lives of other humans. This is why we find gossip so compelling. We go on social media to see how our kin and kith are doing and compare our lives to theirs. We end up feeling much better if we find out that we are doing comparatively better than our friends in one aspect of life,” he continues.
Social media, Mr Ogachi emphasises, rewards these primordial instincts. According to him, every time someone likes, shares or comments on something we put online, our brain releases dopamine — a feel-good chemical that gives us instant gratification and one that can be addictive.
Signs of addiction
The first symptom of social media addiction, Mr Ogachi says, is a lack of control and state of mindless that engulfs one when they are online.
“The urge to see what others are up to becomes so powerful that one keeps glancing down on their cell-phone practically every minute or so. You will find them checking their phones even in the midst of a task that requires total concentration such as driving, changing a baby [diaper] or cooking. They just can’t help it,” he observes.
The lecturer points out an emerging trend in the West where corporates are now giving their employees ‘social media breaks’ to allow them to check their phones in the middle of meetings that run longer than, say, 30 minutes.
“A social media addict will tell themselves that they’re checking their feed for one thing or for just a few minutes, but end up spending hours on the platform.
As a result, their productivity at the workplace plummets. They cannot explore meaningful hobbies or side projects as their time is consistently gobbled up by the internet,” Mr Ogachi observes.
The psychologist suggests that free time nurtures creativity and promotes our mental health. He has observed that many great ideas come to us when we are on a casual walk, in the shower or on vacation. However, an addiction to social media kills this creativity as every free time is taken up by a compulsion to check our timelines.
It is ironic that while social network sites were meant to enhance relationships, Mr Ogachi reports that, on the contrary, overuse of these sites could corrode our interactions with others.
“Relationships that are fostered online are often shallow and less emotionally satisfying than offline ones. Human beings are wired to connect in real life. Instead of liking your friend’s baby photo on Instagram, why not drop by once in two months to spend time with her and the baby? Instead of chatting mindlessly with a cousin on WhatsApp, why not take them out for lunch?” Mr Ogachi poses.
Mr Ogachi further explains that some people spend a lot of time with virtual friends online such that when they retire home in the evening, they cannot relate well with their spouses and immediate family because the family members do not stimulate their minds the same way online interactions do.
Lead to depression
They may then proceed to ignore their families and spend the evening on their phones. This may eventually lead to depression.
“Relying excessively on social media for companionship may cause you to neglect nurturing real life relationships, and this will eventually boil down to loneliness. Studies have shown a correlation between loneliness and depression,” the psychologist points out.
Self-esteem is another aspect greatly threatened by social media. When one puts up a post and only a handful of people react to it, their self-esteem might take a hit.
Mr Ogachi also notes that very few people display their struggles on social media. As such, the feeds are populated by people eating wonderful food, visiting exotic places and looking exceedingly beautiful and happy.
If one is exposed to such a life online and their real life does not match those expectations, they are likely to lose their self-esteem and view themselves as losers; sinking into a state of worthlessness, helplessness and desperation.
To extricate yourself from social media addiction and regain control of your life, Mr Ogachi proposes that you start by developing high-quality activities for leisure.
“Develop a habit of walking to a park, reading books, playing board games like chess and scrabble or learning useful skills such as crocheting or dancing. These activities will keep you engaged, hence prevent you from checking your notifications on impulse,” he says.
Though he appreciates that it is not realistic for an addict to quit social media cold turkey, Mr Ogachi advocates for a self-regulation mechanism whereby one decides that they will only check their social media at certain given times during the day — and stick to the routine.
One can also see a therapist, who is capable of diagnosing any underlying psychological issues that might be making them spend hours searching for solace on social media.