Social Media and it’s impact on mental health

A lot has been spoken, written and streamed on this topic, so I will keep this centered around the fundamentals. I have been researching this area for a writing project and ended up discovering, validating and organizing a lot of my thinking. So here it is.

Let’s start by examining the core psychological issues. As an individual, as I browse through the myriad social media platforms and the uncontrolled media floating around in their streams, I am exposed to several mentally exhausting and harmful situations that I have no protection against. Whether I end up just plain addicted, with reduced self worth, exposed to anxiety and depression or victimized and driven towards physical harm, seems to be not a matter of if, but when. It is interesting to note that the World Health Organization has not yet termed social media overuse as a mental disorder, simply because although deep correlation exists, a causation cannot be confirmed.

Addiction is a definite problem. Stats show that 2-3 hours of social media use per day is the new normal. Apps like Google’s Digital WellBeing or Apple’s ScreenTime can provide most of us with enough data to understand this deeper. Some studies have indicated that for students and the younger generation, this is way more magnified – a whopping 20% of students use social media for over 5 hrs / day.

The self esteem topic is confusing to the core. Studies have resulted in insights that are polar opposites, with some saying that online self-propaganda leads to belief in an altered reality, where you start ‘believing what you project’ and then ‘fake it till you make it’. Other studies have indicated that self esteem is significantly reduced by constantly watching others ‘living it up’, the now famous FOMO effect and therefore having a heightened expectation of life experiences and constantly falling short of it. In most cases, a negative self esteem results in hyper self-promotional activity that turns into a vicious cycle, eventually causing depression.

Substantially darker are the realms of cyber-bullying, dark accounts and at the extreme end the ‘Kilfies’ culture. There is an evolving new ‘Dark Social web’ that’s within threatening reach of our young ones. A recent BBC article covered this in great detail.

So what’s behind all this. What’s the science and what are the facts?

The science is fairly well understood and clear in this area, as long as we don’t get into technicalities of correlation vs causation. Almost every single scientific study has pointed to the obvious correlation of increased use of social media to increased mental disorders. The neurotransmitter dopamine, the ‘happy chemical’ and the associated RPE (Reward Prediction Error) encoding aspects have been known to humans for quite some time now and heavily used in all kinds of ‘sticky’ marketing theories. Casino slot machines are a prime example. 

Documentaries like Netflix’s  ‘The Great Hack’  show how biochemical phenomenon like Dopamine and RPE that have existed since thousands of years are now being exploited fully, by the social media data marketplace that’s willfully abusing personal data, and manipulating our minds, deep rooted behaviors and feelings, influencing not just elections, but the very nature of our society.

One might ask ‘Is there any such thing as free will anymore?’ Therein lies the deep rooted impact of social media on the human psyche. Does it matter that the WHO has still not classified social media overuse as a disease? If free will is compromised, where does that take our democratic society?

A closer look at the Indian situation reveals that we are not at all prepared to cope with our current mental health situation, let alone the future that will be exponentially magnified through social media boom in recent years. With 0.05% of annual budget spent on mental health (compared to (3 to 5%) for most developing / developed nations, limited understanding and  regulations around social media and smartphones and Whatsapp spreading at pandemic proportions, we have a lot of catch up to do.

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So what has been the response so far?

The world has acknowledged it, prominent speakers and leaders have spoken strongly about it, and more than 40+ governments worldwide now have some for of regulations or measures to curb it, but responses from the social media giants have been lukewarm at best. Mark Zuckerberg’s 2018 US Congressional hearings over the Cambridge Analytica probe were clear signs that Silicon Valley and Tech giants are yet to stand up and take responsibility of the content they publish.

In spite of the piled up evidence and intense political scrutiny, there have been only a few scattered responses like Instagram’s recent proposal to hide likes and suppress photoshopped images, twitter’s fact checking, facebooks’s hate speech removal algorithm.

This is not only clearly insufficient, but also speaks of the complete lack of willingness on the part of the social media companies to get to the resolution. We need a holistic strategy and some immediate action.

How should we move forward?

Although we are ultimately accountable for our mental health, can we always control it? Is it enough to self-limit social media usage, promise to fill our lives with more real experiences, and elevate our personal awareness of digital well being, or are we fighting a losing battle to political inaction and corporate greed? Has Wall Street taken control over our neurotransmitters? How do we preserve free will, free choice and a fundamentally democractic society.

Social media has many positives. It has created immense opportunities through it’s connected social fabric, but we should stop and comprehend what’s optimal. Where should we draw the line individually and collectively? What kind of content we need to censor? Can we really look at facebook and draw a clear line separating good and bad content? What makes the content addictive and harmful? is it the content, or the platform, or both, some of the time, or all the time, for adults or for teens, or everybody universally?

These are tough questions. The answer for us, like everything else has to start with acknowledgement of the problem and a willingness to resolve it.

Conclusions

As Lao-Tzu famously observed ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step’. This multi-layered knot of interwoven socio-political, coporate, technological and behavioral dimensions will take time to unravel. Technology is changing at a fast pace and regulations are struggling to play catch up. But with that said, we cannot afford to not take a step. 

Parliaments around the world need to debate and find a balance between content takedown vs free speech. They need to formally criminalize disinformation, fake news and need to define what contitutes illegal content, unambiguously. Media accredition, watchdog organizations, citizen media literacy programs need to be institutionalized. Parliamentary inquiries need to be opened and legal proceedings need to be accelerated.

At the same time, social media companies need to bring in clarity of how they use our data, and provide us an opportunity to opt out. They need to alter their model to remove or reduce dependency on advertising dollars, and strictly enforce dark and illegal content per government guidelines.

As individuals, we are certainly not the weakest link in the chain. We need to use technology mindfully and fill ourselves with more of real, physical and meaningful interactions. We need to be watchful of our digital well being and keep an eye out for our immensely vulnerable youth. They are growing up in an extremely unpredictable, dangerous and uncontrolled digital environment, and our inaction or negligence can destroy the very foundation of their future.

Please don’t worry about ‘liking’ this post! I won’t feel offended 🙂

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