Lying and ‘spying’ on social media linked to low self-esteem

Sign of the Times: Irish survey is latest to link poor mental health with use of technology

The results of the 2019 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A) are published by The Irish Times today. The annual snapshot of Irish life combines quantitative and digital qualitative techniques with B&A published data on the economy, health, technology and shopping. The research was conducted in January and February 2019.

The 2019 Sign of the Times survey by Behaviour & Attitudes highlights our emerging love-hate relationship with our smartphones and social media. When the iPhone was first launched in 2007, we marvelled at its ingenuity to entertain, connect and inform us.

Over the next decade smartphone use grew exponentially as did our engagement with social media and now they are almost ubiquitous, invading almost all aspects of our lives.

The survey finds that nine out of 10 of us own a smartphone, three-quarters of us access the internet at least once a day, and on average Facebook users are now spending 10 hours a week on the social media networking platform (up from eight hours two years ago).

There is a huge age disparity in the findings with almost 100 per cent of adults under 50 owning a smartphone, though this falls to 55 per cent for the 65+ age group even though the latter have been rapid adopters in recent years.

However, the survey also highlights we have begun to question our social media and smartphone usage in recent years, with many people concerned how it interrupts our attention and affects our real relationships. About 50 per cent report checking emails when they can’t sleep in the night and 60 per cent are concerned about how technology impacts on the art of conversation.

Most interestingly, the survey looks at the links between our technology use and our mental health, using two standardised questionnaires to measure self-esteem and happiness.

What is striking is the link between rates of poor self-esteem and unhappiness for people who agreed they “tend to compare their life to others’ lives online” or who admitted they followed lots of celebrities, YouTubers or influencers on social media.

Using social media for dishonest activities such as being “economical with the truth” and “spying” on the activities of others is also linked to lower rates of self-esteem. Most disturbing is how these high these rates of low self-esteem are in the youngest 16-24 age bracket. Young people are the biggest users of social media and technology and are also those most negatively affected.

Online social connections appear not to be a replacement for real-life social contacts. At best they enhance them

While the survey does show correlation it does not prove causation. It could be argued that people who already have poor self-esteem are naturally drawn to use social media in the negative ways listed above. However, this is the case for all studies in the area. To show causation you would have to find a group of young people who have not used social media before, then randomly assign them to two groups (one exposed to social media over a period of months and one not) and then compare results to see if their self-esteem has dropped - in other words an impossible study.

However, the survey does indicate concerning evidence that should make us question a naïve acceptance of social media as always a good thing. Indeed, the results are aligned with a growing number of international studies linking young people’s mental health problems with excessive technology and social media use, whether this is increased anxiety, depression or disturbed sleep.

While there is strong evidence that real face to face social contacts have significant benefits for a person’s wellbeing, this is not the case for online social contacts, and many studies have found negative associations, leading to a tentative conclusion that online social connections are not a replacement for real life social contacts and at best enhance them.

In addition, it has been long established that the higher the number of hours spent on screens the greater the chance of being overweight or obese – which is one of the most serious health problems of our age.

These survey results, mirror my own experience as a mental health professional, where problems associated with technology are increasingly visible in clinical practice.

I have worked with teenagers who are crippled with social anxiety and who only relate to “online friends” and others addicted to social media, checking their accounts through the night ( often without their parents knowing).

In the bedroom couples are scrolling through social-media sites rather than communicating directly with one another, not to mention rarely being intimate

Within couple counselling, there has been a huge growth in technology related problems such as social media “affairs” or online pornography. In the bedroom couples are now scrolling through their respective social media sites rather than communicating directly with one another not to mention rarely being intimate.

For parents technology has now become the biggest source of conflict in the home whether this is trying to get a 10 year old off a video game or to limit a 16 year old’s addiction to Instagram. When I first started this work 25 years ago, the number one parenting battle was to get children to come in on time from playing outside; now it is get them off screens to and to go out in first place.

The survey provides us with a timely pause, to rethink our relationship with technology in our lives. Instead of uncritically accepting and indeed cheerleading the arrival of every new gadget into our lives (how is it that the media provide free advertising for Facebook and Apple?), we need to also consider the downsides, and wonder whether it will diminish rather than enhance our lives.

We need to take charge of technology rather than it being in charge of us.

One of the more interesting aspects of the Irish Times B&A survey is the growing awareness of the problems associated with smartphones and social media. Many people are now criticising its role in their lives and some are trying to place boundaries.

While in 2017, 60 per cent of people reported checking emails, text messages, or social media last thing at night or first thing in the morning, this figure was down to 49 per cent in the current survey. Hopefully this indicates a trend towards a people taking charge and prioritising a better night’s sleep.

We certainly need to develop a more balanced and mature relationship with technology, making sure to put it in its place and ensuring it does not damage the important things in our lives such as our real-world relationships and most importantly our sense of wellbeing and self-esteem.

Establishing good habits for technology

In the Parents Plus programmes we encourage parents to be proactive about setting good technology habits in the home and in particular negotiate a family media plan. We recommend parents to start a conversation with their children and teenagers using a series of questions such as those below. You can of course complete the questions as an individual so you can come with your personal plan to keep technology in its rightful place in your life:

  • What are the good things about social media/screen use in our home?
  • What are the problems about social media/ screen use in the home?
  • What is the maximum daily time each person should spend on social media?
  • What times should we unplug from social media: at family meals, when going for a walk, after 8pm?
  • What areas of the home – the bedroom, for example – should we keep social-media free?
  • How can we ensure technology does not interrupt or distract us: turn off notifications, say, or only check emails twice a day, and so on?
  • What other positive things can we do – such as reading a book, art/crafts, exercise/ going for a walk, meeting friends personally – instead of social media?

Some of these habits might be difficult to choose, such as “no social media” in the bedroom. Parents are as conflicted as their teenagers about giving up immediate access to their phones. Often it is best to first start with the habits that feel the easiest such as removing screens from the dinner table and prioritising conversation then. Also, creative solutions might help, such as resorting back to older alarm clocks so phones don’t need to be in the bedroom, (and thus avoiding the temptation for middle of the night social media checking) or agreeing to use “parental controls” on everyone’s phone to set a daily time limit on social media sites.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology;,