Commentary: The impact of social media on the mental health of everyone

January 11, 2022 5:41 am
A phone screen with social media aps

Social media has become an integral part of everyday life for most people, but there are reasons for concern. (Chris McGrath | Getty Images)

In 2015, Sherry Turkle, a social scientist and licensed psychologist, wrote a bestseller – “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk In a Digital Age” – on how in-person interactions are being replaced by devices such as smartphones. This book was released years after Facebook and other platforms began to not only replace conversations, but also to increase the amount of time people spend online. 

Smartphones have become such a huge part of our lives that even kids and adolescents have them. There is no question that these devices serve a purpose for emergency and safety reasons, but what is different is the addictive nature of smartphones, especially for children and young adults, as highlighted by the work of Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge. Both these social psychologists have written about the growing use of digital devices and the mental health of adolescents. Increases they saw in loneliness, depression, and suicidal tendencies prompted them to probe further and they uncovered that, as the mental health of adolescents was declining, the majority of Americans were acquiring smartphones. They reported that by 2015 two-thirds of youth owned these devices; and by 2019, depression had nearly doubled. 

But it was not just the increased ownership and use of smartphones that was troubling. In the years leading up to 2015, there was another development in the digital world. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram became more aggressive and successful in luring all people, especially young people, to their sites through algorithms and other “engagement” tricks. More recent data from Facebook’s own research has shown that the clinical symptoms of suicidal tendencies and depression are associated with the use of social media, especially by teenage girls and young women. Experts have cast it as “compare and despair” and the specific disorder reflected in the data is eating disorders. 

Social media has become such a common part of our everyday lives; the great majority of people in the United States and around the world rely on digital media vs. traditional media. Expedited electronic sharing of knowledge and information on a wide variety of topics certainly has been invaluable. The major platforms dominate, but many online communities have come into existence over the last decade that have had positive not negative consequences. The formation of small groups and communities managed and controlled from within have not seen the anger and contentiousness that tends to happen on certain platforms, such as Twitter. 

I believe it’s fair to say that the larger platforms know what can be done to diminish risk; however, it goes against their business models to cut down on device usage. Platforms could also improve in the area of age and identity verification. In the absence of these types of improvements, suffice it to say that social media is here to stay with major platforms acknowledging that further regulation in some fashion is needed by federal regulators. 

While smartphone and social media use can be addictive for many of us, a major concern is how the biggest platforms are attracting, engaging, and impacting the lives of our next generation. So what can we do to protect the most vulnerable age groups and those at clinical risk? Here are suggestions from the experts, which begin with all device users accepting personal responsibility for their actions. 

The most basic guidance is reducing the amount of time spent on our smartphones, which goes against the grain of user feeds and algorithms designed to keep us all engaged. For parents, this means working to keep kids off their devices for longer periods of time. Parents should restrict use of devices in the evening, especially as it gets closer to bedtime, as experts indicate that there can be lasting negative effects when use interferes with sleep. Finally, while all of the above can be challenging given the “fear of missing out,” delaying entry into social media by children to begin with will lessen the risks of being online. Unfortunately, given the poor detection methods by major platforms, kids as young as 10 years old pretending to be older are sometimes able to open accounts. 

There is no question that, as we enter into a new 2022, the social media proverbial train has left the station. Now is the time for individuals, technology companies, and government to step up to protect vulnerable groups from the harmful consequences of social media. Doing so will surely lead to a stronger, safer, and more successful younger generation and society.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Vic Topo
Vic Topo

Vic Topo is president and CEO of the Center for Life Management in Derry.