Rwanda: Social Media and the Mental Health of Young Adults – the Need for Digital Detox

Our emotional, psychological, and social well-being are all parts of our mental health. It influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Additionally, it influences how we respond to stress, interact with others, and make good (or bad) decisions. Despite being a critical component of human well-being, it is frequently disregarded and stigmatised.

The World Health Organization reports that the prevalence of mental health issues is rising at a rate of 13 per cent each year, which is quite concerning. Mental health issues can affect individuals of all ages, and their prevalence can vary based on numerous factors, including demographic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors.

Young people often experience significant life changes and transitions, such as leaving home, starting college or a job, and forming new relationships. These changes can be stressful and may contribute to the onset or exacerbation of mental health issues.

Young adults are usually in good health and it’s uncommon to see them feeling unwell, but we see an ever-growing number of younger people consulting with mental health issues.

A Rwanda mental health survey that was conducted in 2018 showed the most prevalent mental disorders were major depressive episodes (12.0%), panic disorder (8.1%), and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (3.6%). Many other studies in Rwanda have shown similar results in mental health disorders and also show that these disorders are strongly associated with functional impairment.

Rwanda is a relatively young country, looking at the population age structure, we see that 50 per cent of Rwandans are under 20 years of age while the average age of the population of Rwanda is approximately 22.7 years according to our last census. With a significant portion of the population being under 20, there may be a significant prevalence of mental health issues in this demographic.

Many young people are now constantly using social media for communication and entertainment purposes. Consequently, it has the potential to have both positive and negative effects on them. On the plus side, technology promotes social contact and connectivity, allowing people to keep in touch over long distances, exchange stories, and access knowledge and learning.

It also provides a stage for advocacy, creativity, and self-discovery. However, continual exposure to edited pictures and information can encourage inaccurate comparisons and result in problems. Social media’s addictive qualities can harm your sleep, productivity, and mental health. Due to the constant sharing of personal data online, privacy and security issues are also a constant.

It’s important that young people or their family members recognise early signs and symptoms of mental health issues related to excessive social media use. These may include increased anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, decreased self-esteem, or a sense of social isolation.

Recognising these signs early allows for timely intervention and support. Family members, in particular, can play a vital role by maintaining open lines of communication with young individuals and actively listening to their concerns. Encouraging healthy offline activities, offering emotional support, and helping set limits on screen time can all contribute to a more balanced and mentally healthy approach to social media use. If these signs persist or worsen, seeking professional help from a mental health provider is advisable.

Rwanda has the appropriate mental healthcare infrastructure as part of universal healthcare and young people should be able to access care. Despite this progress, mental health stigma persists and deters many young individuals from seeking help.

Stigmatisation can be a barrier to accessing care, as young people may fear discrimination or judgment from their communities or even family members. But as much as care is available, we should do more to prevent the occurrence of mental health strain.

We should carefully look at conducting public awareness campaigns to inform parents, caregivers, and young people themselves about the potential risks of excessive social media use, exposure to inappropriate content and how to mitigate them, practicing digital detox like reduction of screen time, curating what you see on social media, and in general practicing mindful use of social media.

It’s important to emphasise that mental health issues can affect individuals of any age, and they should not be stigmatised or dismissed. But it’s crucial to understand the particular risks and developmental challenges that young people experience. It is crucial to offer age-appropriate mental health care, education, and accessible services that cater to the unique needs of young people because adolescence and young adulthood may be exceptionally difficult times, marked by significant transformations and societal pressures.

This dual strategy makes sure that we recognise the commonality of mental health issues while proactively addressing the unique problems that young people encounter, thereby fostering their resilience and well-being.

Dr Vincent Mutabazi is an applied epidemiologist.


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