KUALA LUMPUR: The ubiquitous social media, while being necessary and beneficial in the world that we live in today, has its dark side too.
The frightening thing is that this dark side seems to be attracting the attention of a large number of social media users, particularly youngsters, who are eager to participate and show off in any trending, and usually ugly, activity.
It may not be too far from the truth to say that Malaysians are also getting easily hooked by such trends, considering that Malaysia is one of several countries where the majority of the population are social media users.
According to Digital Business Lab, a digital marketing agency specializing in social media strategy, influencer marketing and video production, 86 percent of Malaysians were social media users as of January 2021, an increase of 24 percent compared with 2016.
There’s more. Statista, a company specializing in market and consumer data, found that Malaysians spend an average of three hours a day on social media.
Certain trends popularized by social media users can be harmful to physical health and have an adverse effect on a person’s psychological development.
One of these is ‘mukbang’, a bizarre eating trend featuring a live-streamed video that shows the host cooking and eating copious amounts of food.
‘Mukbang’, featured by Collins Dictionary as one of its Words of 2020, is said to have originated from the Korean words for ‘eating’ and ‘broadcast’.
Dr Salina Nen, senior lecturer at the Center for Research in Psychology and Human Well-Being, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, said it is worrying that teenagers are the ones easily attracted to such trends.
She said one of the reasons for this is their desire to be looked upon as individuals inclined to follow what is popular on social media even though that behavior may be clearly against the cultural norms of society.
For them, getting many ‘likes’ and compliments on social media is of more importance as these are symbolic of acceptance and recognition of the social group they prefer to be associated with.
“Based on the psychological perspective of human development, children particularly teenagers and youths are at a critical age where they have a strong desire to be accepted into social groups or among their peers. In this context, social media becomes a platform for adolescents to socialise.
“On the TikTok (video sharing) platform, for example, we can see what is currently popular or trending and the number of users engaged in that trending activity.
“This is what we understand as learning from observation. If teenagers are presented with various popular trends, even if these are not healthy for the development of the mind and body, there is a high possibility that they will engage in them simply because they are popular.
“Many will engage in them even when they know for sure that these are against eastern norms which we practice,” she told Bernama.
Salina explained that before the Internet came into being, teenagers and youths shaped their identities from real-world interactions such as with family members, friends and those in authority. The social norms and activities were also consistent most of the time.
With the advent of the Internet and social media, the molding of the identities of teenagers and youths became easily influenced by outsiders from various backgrounds, both good and bad, she said.
She also said that this is backed by a western study – The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyber Psychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online – in 2016 which also found that individual behavior tends to be more extreme on social media than in the real world.
“Social media is a new field for teenagers to experiment with, learn from, socialise in and take risks. The diverse nature of cyberspace and the inclination to go against societal norms will certainly have some influence on the shaping of teenage identities.
“This is because cyberspace itself induces extreme conditions such as difficulty in controlling content, the ability to conceal identity and keeping physical distancing, as well as relaxation of authority. This can cause a person to act impulsively without heeding the consequences. This situation can create an aggressive attitude and other risky behavior,” she said.
Pointing to a recent viral trend, the life-threatening ‘choking game’, which challenges a person to put pressure on the chest until he or she finds it difficult to breathe, Salina said: “This can lead to death. Due to the inclination to be popular and follow the trend, young people are willing to risk their own lives.
“As such, without monitoring and guidance from people around them, teenagers are at risk of shaping their personalities through unhealthy means. In their confused state, they can develop a problematic personality, get into binge eating and develop health and mental issues such as turning into a narcissistic personality or going into depression,” she added.
Salina advised parents to keep abreast of current developments and the influence of cyberspace on the development and growth of their children and adolescents, as well as continue to closely monitor their usage of the Internet and encourage the improvement of their technological literacy.
These can enhance the ability of parents to restrict their children’s Internet activities, help them to develop healthy Internet usage habits, control the websites they visit and prevent them from getting addicted to social media.
It must be noted that the development of technology and the Internet poses a major challenge for the regulating authorities such as the Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to remain proactive in the face of changing technological trends and, at the same time, ensure that social media is safe for everyone to engage in.
Salina suggested that MCMC find space to enhance its authority and enforcement in cyberspace to curb unhealthy activities.
At the same time, the enforcement should not restrict the freedom and privacy of individuals in cyberspace, she said.
Dr Mohd Shahid Mohd Noh, senior lecturer at the Department of Syariah and Economics, Academy of Islamic Studies, Universiti Malaya, said despicable social media trends can become the norm if many people are influenced by them.
When such things become normal, it indicates the failure of the functioning of the agents of education such as family, formal educational institutions, the government and society, he said.
“The trend ‘Unboxing the Wife’ which has now gone viral in this country may seem common in some cultures and places, but it goes against the norms in our country where it is most important to maintain one’s dignity,” he said.
The ‘Unboxing the Wife’ trend features Muslim newlyweds where the groom would remove his bride’s head accessories while she takes a video of him doing so.
Mohd Shahid also noted that many netizens have hit out at such trends, adding that he viewed that as positive because “there are many people out there who realise that it’s their duty to rebuke wrongdoers and rectify their flaws”.
“Starting from dressing modestly, being courteous during social interactions to practising the proper etiquette when using social media… we need to take care of all these things. This is because dignity is very different from having property. Lost or damaged property can be easily replaced, but when your reputation is tarnished, it is hard to rebuild it,” he pointed out. -Bernama