We need to stop blaming modern technology for NZ's mental health problem, says Lee Suckling.
You can't open a web browser without hearing about a new study telling us that social media is giving people mental health problems. Whether we are told social media makes you internalise your problems, or limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression, a salient truth seems to be coming through from researchers: social media is bad for us.
Unless, it seems, you're a New Zealander.
Last week the Herald reported on a new study concerning Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram use amongst Kiwis. Its primary finding was that the social networks don't really affect our psychological wellbeing negatively. "Overall, we found that social media has very little to do with New Zealanders' mental wellbeing," said the study's author Samantha Stronge, from University of Auckland's School of Psychology.
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I've been pondering this overall finding for several days now. How is it that copious international studies keep finding negative correlations between social media and mental health, but when 19,000 Kiwis were studied, we came out OK? After all, we all are becoming starkly aware that mental health issues are a huge problem in New Zealand. It just appears they have nothing to do with scrolling on our iPhone screens.
I go on and off social media frequently. I did an Instagram experiment to see if it would make my life better or worse . I didn't think I'd use the platform again, but I now have a private account just to see what friends and brands I like are up to. I have a deactivated Facebook account but I occasionally log in to see what's going on. Sometimes I'll visit particular people's Twitter accounts, even though I don't even have an account myself.
There are positives and negatives to social media use, which is why I always seem to keep one foot in the door with them. Sure, Instagram influencers make me a little jealous of their lifestyles, but they don't do anything to my actual, measurable mental health. In fact, I don't think social media makes me anxious or depressed at all.
Like almost 20,000 other New Zealanders who don't think social media is a problem for psychological wellbeing, I think my inherent Kiwi-ness gives me a buffer when it comes to how social networks affect me.
For example, New Zealanders hate to boast. It's just not in our nature. When I see somebody on a flash Maldives holiday or holding a Louis Vuitton x Supreme bag online, I genuinely don't feel bad about my own lacklustre life down in Wellington. I just roll my eyes and think, "I would never admit to owning a $10,000 bag or buying a first-class Emirates ticket when I could go economy. What a waste of money".
A healthy dose of Kiwi cynicism goes a long way when it comes to not letting social media harm you too. I think most New Zealanders are able to look at someone's perfect-seeming life online and think, "I know that's not your real-life day-to-day! You work in a cubicle in Greenlane just like I do!"
Likewise, we Kiwis aren't generally brought up to envy what other people have. We are from a tiny country at the end of the world and genuinely don't think being famous is a possibility for us. This is a healthy attitude to have. We don't look at photos from the latest Hollywood awards-night party, Mediterranean yacht trip with supermodels, or of a new $200,000 Range Rover purchase and believe we could have that too if we worked hard enough. For New Zealanders, the concept of being a celebrity on an international scale is ridiculous. While social media has taught much of the rest of the world that it's possible for everyone, I think we Kiwis know better.
In fact, our isolated geography is why I think social media actually improves our mental health rather than takes away from it. When I was growing up in Christchurch in the 1990s, life in New Zealand felt so provincial. It felt quiet, unconnected, and like a delayed version of Australia or the United States in terms of culture and access. With the help of social networks, we are now just as connected to the world as anyone else. We can do everything in real-time. Commenting on others' posts and interacting from the other side of the globe makes us feel more included in the conversation, not less. It is helping us feel less left out.
I'm sure there are Kiwis out there whose wellbeing does decrease from the cumulative nature of social media's "grass is greener" effect. But as that new Auckland Uni study found, you have to use social media so excessively – perhaps an impossible amount of hours a day – to really have it hurt you. When it comes to New Zealanders' mental health problem, I think we can stop blaming modern technology now. Let's start looking at the other things in Kiwi society that are taking their toll on us.