Arab Youth Survey 2023: Social media causing decline in mental health

Almost three in four say they are struggling to disconnect from online platforms

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Most young people in the Arab world believe social media is having a negative effect on their mental health.

That was prominent among the latest findings of the Arab Youth Survey 2023, which found more than 60 per cent of young Arabs think social media use is leading to a decline in their mental well-being.

Just under three quarters of those surveyed, 74 per cent, said they are struggling to disconnect from social media.

This figure rose to 82 per cent when focused solely on young Arabs in GCC nations.

“The lifestyles of the region’s youth are increasingly defined by their social media addiction and even when they agree they struggle to disconnect, many favour seeking fame by choosing to be social media influencers," said Sunil John, founder of Asda'a BCW, the PR agency that conducts the annual survey.

"The overt dependence on social media appears to have left many young people living in a bubble, unaware of the socioeconomic realities.

"With the highest levels of youth unemployment in the world, it is important for the Mena region to channel the energies of these young men and women into vocational training and quality education for the jobs of the future.

“A digital-savvy youth population is an asset for any nation but their mental well-being must be given top priority by encouraging them to live a fuller social life in the real world," he added.

Nearly two thirds (61 per cent) of those quizzed said they get their news from social media, a significant drop from 2019 when that figure was 80 per cent.

Television was the second most preferred source of news – named by just under half of young Arabs (45 per cent).

Social media influencer is most desired profession

When asked in which field they would like to achieve fame, the most popular response was as a "social media influencer", with 13 per cent giving this answer.

This was ahead of options such as careers in industry, education, business, health care and tourism.

The second most popular way to become famous was as a chef, food critic or food blogger, with 12 per cent of those polled choosing this path.

The vast majority of the Arab youth, 92 per cent, believe big tech companies have too much influence.

This was a view shared by young people in all three of the regions covered in the survey, the GCC states, North Africa and Levant.

The same figure of 92 per cent felt social media firms need to do more to stop disinformation being shared on their sites.

One trend on the rise is online portals (websites) being used as a source of news. Online portals were named as the primary source of news for 42 per cent of young Arabs, a marked rise from 38 per cent in 2019.

Daily print newspapers continued to decline, according to the study, with less than one in 10 (9 per cent) saying it was their preferred source of news.

The most trusted source of news was television, according to 89 per cent of respondents. Online portals were next at 79 per cent, followed by print newspapers at 76 per cent.

Social media influencers, however, were deemed as "not trustworthy" by 42 per cent in the survey.

Half of those polled, 50 per cent, said they would share news from social media without checking its accuracy first.

When asked what defined their lifestyles, more than half, 58 per cent, said dining out with friends.

This was followed by hanging out with friends, 57 per cent, with wearing fashionable brands being favoured by 42 per cent.

More than a third, 36 per cent, said "holidaying in new destinations", while 31 per cent said "going to the movies" reflected their lifestyle, and almost as many, 30 per cent, said "driving a sports car".

The survey was conducted face-to-face in 53 cities across 18 Arab states, with 3,600 Arab citizens aged 18 to 24 taking part.

Endless scrolling an issue

Bana Al Kurdi, a Palestinian-Jordanian who lives in Al Ain, said social media affects her "more negatively than positively".

"I try to focus on getting inspired, motivated, or entertained by it, but the negative side effects always seem to come along," she told The National.

"I find myself involuntarily comparing myself to others, even though I am perfectly content. I still have to decide if that motivates me to do better, like work harder and eat healthier, or if it just puts my confidence down.

"It drags me down being informed of the disasters happening around the world but not being able to take much action."

Lana Khater, 22, a Lebanese-Jordanian who lives in Hungary, said endless scrolling on social media can have a negative impact young people's mental health.

"I think it does because in some aspects there are certain apps that people use that have specific algorithms that are catered to you so the more you scroll, the more you’re going to find something that you are going to like and you are going to scroll for hours and hours and never get anything productive done,” Ms Khater told The National.

Amna Elhadi, 21, a Sudanese who lives in Abu Dhabi finds the "endless scrolling through stressful news, clips and posts" can impact mental health and said she can disconnect from social media "when I’m placed under present pressure that requires my focus and time".

She said social media companies tend to focus only on tackling the fake news that goes viral.

"The majority of them are taking immediate action to tackle fake news but in my opinion that only applies to fake news that reach large audiences. The rest, which only reaches smaller audiences with just as much harm, are often neglected."

Aisha Nasser, 22, from Oman, who is a managing director of an event organising company, said watching the perfect side of other people’s life can make her feel "inadequate, unaccomplished and demotivated".

"It has become an overwhelming and addictive at the same time," Ms Nasser told The National.

"Social media has affected me subconsciously and consciously. If I stopped looking and scrolling through social media I feel anxious and falling behind."

Shamma Al Ali, 22, an Emirati who is studying computer engineering at United Arab Emirates University, said social media can create "unrealistic expectations and standards, which can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem".

"Additionally, it can lead to a decrease in real world social connections, which are crucial for healthy mental well being. And it can make a person feel like they are never doing enough or trying hard enough," Ms Al Ali told The National.

Ms Al Ali said it's important to recognise the importance of spending time away from technology.

"I actively make an effort to limit my screen time and to set boundaries around this," she said.

"At the same time, I acknowledge that social media and the internet can be valuable tools for connection, learning and collaboration, and I also use these platforms in moderation."

She said social media companies need to do more to tackle fake news.

"While they may have made efforts and put in some basic measures in place, these measures are not enough," Ms Al Ali said.

"Fake news can be extremely harmful as it can mislead large groups of people and spread misinformation. This can lead to a whole number of negative ramifications, including political instability, increased levels of anxiety, confusion and fear and ultimately a breakdown in trust in institutions.

"As social media companies have a big part to play in mitigating the effects of fake news, they should do more to tackle this issue, and quickly."

Updated: October 10, 2023, 5:45 PM