Call it antisocial media. Consume enough and it will make you sick. Think that’s merely my opinion? Actually, it is one held by current and former execs at Facebook, in the belly of the beast.
Facebook’s Director of Research, David Ginsberg, in a joint blog post last month with research scientist Moira Burke, reported a study “from UC San Diego and Yale found that people who clicked on about four times as many links as the average person, or who liked twice as many posts, reported worse mental health than average.”
Expanding the circle of concern, last month also witnessed former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya, speaking at Stanford, opining, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.”
Palihapitiya, now the founder of Social Capital, concluded: “I just don’t use these tools anymore.”
Given the plasticity of the prefrontal cortex in adolescents, which can prevail into the mid-20s, the antisocial aspects of social media can have the most profound consequences. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says depression among teens has risen inexplicably by 60 percent since 2010, and suicidal thought has been reported in nearly half of kids who use electronic devices at least five hours a day — and how many do not?
Compounding this is the average age of 10 at which kids now get their first smartphone, according to HHS.
In the meta-analysis Online Social Networking and Mental Health by Dr. Igor Pantic of the University of Belgrade School of Medicine, the studies reviewed attest to the fact that “with the development of social networks, the time children and adolescents spend in front of the computer screen has significantly increased. This has led to the further reduction of intensity of interpersonal communication both in the family and in the wider social environment.”
Drilling down, Dr. Pantic reports, “In our recent study in a high school student population, we found a statistically significant positive correlation between depressive symptoms and time spent” on social networks. Interestingly, he notes, “No such correlation was detected” with “time spent watching television.”
I guess TV dodged a bullet on that one. Mind you, one can be happy in one’s ignorance.
The “dopamine-driven feedback loops” of social media called out by the former Facebook VP Palihapitiya are backed up by research which shows not just a feel-good neurochemical hit from these activities, but an equally potent downside: dopamine withdrawal. When kids put down their phones, they are subject to irritability, fatigue and distracted thinking. Digital heroin for the digitally hooked.
While epidemiological studies and self-reporting surveys are notoriously unreliable when it comes to decisive proof — witness cigarettes and cancer — statistics in the U.K. point to at least one worrisome cause for the rise in mental health issues among the young: the phenomenon of cyberbullying, an epidemic in social media.
A 2017 survey of more than 10,000 British teens, by the anti-bullying Ditch the Label organization, found almost two-thirds had experienced some degree of cyberbullying, with one-third rating its frequency from “often” to “constantly.”
Among this majority of teenagers in the U.K. who reported cyberbullying, more than one-third had developed depression as a result, about one-quarter had self-harmed, and an equal number reported suicidal thoughts. It is a virtual crisis on both sides of the pond. Two weeks ago, a middle-school girl in Florida hanged herself with a dog leash after two other 12-year-olds cyberbullied her.
Social media are proving so dangerous that psychiatrists have raised the possibility that online social networking is a clinical “addiction disorder” warranting its own place in the DMS — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — tome so beloved of courts and TV crime shows.
To witness this disorder, observe any group of teens at the mall or the school hall, where cellphones are now largely allowed between classes, and see how many are focused on their phones rather than on each other, their fingers doing the talking. I swipe therefore I am.
Look at their parents on the plane, train or bus. You and I, my friend. The succubus of social media has us in its thrall.
For role model, we reside now in a nation swamped by a tsunami of tweets. While most studies of social media’s effects on mental health have focused on Facebook as a prime offender, Twitter may indeed be next in line for clinical research.
If we are, collectively, obsessed with our smartphones to the detriment of civil discourse, we are missing the sensory cues of the real world and real people. We cannot understand those whom we do not know. Actual lives matter.
Digital social networking puts the “me” in media, but may well miss the “us” in E pluribus Unum.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker.