One of the traits that is seemingly inherent in a good number of Maltese citizens is the unquenchable thirst to know what others are doing. This is a crucial precursor to another favourite activity of ours, namely, gossiping. While some may disagree, these features are as endearing as they are irritating, and constitute an important part of our identity as the noisy and colourful bunch of the Mediterranean. 

Though this may merit scientific enquiry, such traits are probably not the result of a ‘nosy’ gene that the Maltese are born with but are more likely brought about by socio-environmental factors. 

Think about it: We live on a small island which also happens to be densely populated. The fact that we are literally stepping on each other’s toes and continuously bumping into each other’s cars makes it somewhat impossible to ignore those around us since our lives overlap with those of a lot of others, whether we like it and want it or not. 

Historically, villagers tended to be more close-knit than they are today with fewer people being in employment, and so, there was more time spent at home in addition to a general slower pace of life. Then, social media came into existence and a parallel form of reality was created. 

Among other features, one cannot negate the fact that social media provide a perfect platform for contemporary nosiness from the comfort and relative invisibility of our homes. While some types of social media allow for greater glimpses of the lives of others, all forms encourage the generation of an incredible amount of data which, of course, serves the purpose of allowing us to remain somewhat updated about relatives, friends and colleagues. 

Though let us be honest... who of us cannot plead guilty to looking up an ex, crush, potential employee or employer, that neighbour who seems to have the perfect life or even just the random celebrity? 

This may sound as a perfectly innocent and reasonable pastime activity. 

Yet, in the local scenario, we may not be focusing enough on some of the potential mental health risks in relation to the use of social media. Here I am not referring to the well exposed cyberbullying and online addiction problems. 

Over the years, these have been given local prominence with nationwide initiatives such as the #StopHate campaign against cyber bullying, research on problematic internet use by the President’s Foundation for the Well-being of Society and professionals such as the Commissioner of Mental Health speaking about online addictions in Malta. 

However, there may be other covert effects on mental health that need to be further looked into and which may not be necessarily brought about by overuse of social platforms as opposed to normal use. Here I am referring to the consequences that certain posts on social media may have on one’s general state of mental well-being. 

Let us for instance consider those platforms that allow for the uploading of pictures, such as Facebook, which happens to be the preferred platform in Malta. If one were to gauge the happiness of individuals or families based on what features in the pictures they upload, then it would seem as if we all live in a nirvana-like bliss where people smile and look picture perfect, couples gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes and kids behave like A-grade angels. 

In reality, most of us do realise that these pictures may sometimes be a far cry from a realistic snapshot and that what is actually being presented online is a curated version.

Thus, real life may often consist of kids who behave perfectly for the daily grand total of five nanoseconds, individuals whose hair looks sleek and shiny for exactly 10 minutes past the hairdresser’s appointment and couples who have a go at each other as frequently as they hug and kiss. Still, it is no secret that the temptation to compare others’ social media pictures/posts in an unfavourable way to one’s own real life is often quite high. 

It is no secret that the temptation to compare others’ social media pictures/posts in an unfavourable way to one’s own real life is often quite high

There may also be the fear of missing out (FOMO) which is commonly attributed to millennial ennui and may be exacerbated by our constant gazing into our personal crystal balls offered by social platforms. Basically, FOMO refers to the feeling one may get when one wishes that s/he could have done something or been somewhere but missed out on this opportunity. 

Alarmingly, such upward social comparisons may not always take place in active consciousness, and so, one may be left with a deep feeling of doom without being really aware of what triggered it in the first place. 

Some of us may be able to snap out of such mental states easily through an appeal to common sense leading to the realisation that such comparisons are unfair and futile. Yet others may find it more difficult to do so and, on a chronic basis, this may lead to lingering feelings of sadness, anxiety and demotivation. It does not necessarily depend on one’s emotional strength since even the toughest of us have bad hair days. 

 This means that anyone is prone to misperceiving such online perfect depictions of reality and consequently spiral into a more negative state of mind. That social media may have a correlation to negative mental states and sometimes even mental illnesses is a topic of hot debate and one that has featured extensively in international literature, though, admittedly, most of the studies focus on young people. 

One such study by Primack and colleagues (2014) found an association between the use of social media, anxiety, depression and perceived social isolation in 1,700 adults with an age range of 19-32. Several similar studies confirmed these findings, yet it must be noted that others, such as the one by Heffer and colleagues (2018), contradicted them. 

Indeed, one of the counterarguments presented is that people who suffer from a mental illness may seek to make more use of social media, and so, the association between such platforms and negative mind states may be attributed to an already existing lack of well-being. 

It seems then as if more research is required in this respect. Interestingly, this topic has received considerable coverage internationally. Yet, in Malta, it does not seem to have commonly been the subject of research or debate. This is quite ironic seeing that last year’s statistics showed that Malta has the second highest social media use in Europe, with 94 per cent and 71 per cent of young internet users and elder ones respectively being active members of a form of online social platform.

While not wishing to come across as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, may I add that not all is doom and gloom in the beloved world of social media and its potential effect on mental health. 

This is particularly so because it seems as if certain measures can be taken to protect oneself. 

First of all, it may be wise to limit social media ping ponging, namely the somewhat obsessive and routine logging in and out of platforms just to check on others – this may amount to several times per day and night. 

Secondly, if you are going through a period of dissatisfaction, it may not be the best solution to log onto your favourite social media platform to ease your sorrows. While you may indeed find comfort among your online social network, the risk of engaging in upward comparisons is high, possibly resulting in greater dissatisfaction and despair. 

Finally, seeing that Maltese people are such avid users of social media, it is prime time for engaging in local research that explores the association of social media use and mental well-being so that mass education can then follow as necessary.      

Dr Paulann Grech is a lecturer at the Department of Mental Health, Faculty of Health Sciences (University of Malta).