Social media is a public health crisis – Let’s treat it like one
“It’s time to take old approaches to a new threat of addiction.”
When it comes to social media, the red flags just keep appearing.
Amid debate, experts have found that social media use appears linked to negative mental health impacts among young people. Researchers have noted a rise in depression among young people since about 2012, with use of social media among teens and their amount of time spent online increasing in close proximity. Earlier this year, the Reboot Foundation, which I run [Helen Lee Bouygues], surveyed more than 1,000 Americans on their social media usage – and found a disturbing impact on mental health.
All this points to how our social media usage has become a public health crisis. I believe we need to start treating these platforms like we do cigarettes and alcohol. That means implementing warning labels and age restrictions, and conducting better research into the health effects of long-term usage.
Just last week, President Joe Biden said the rampant misinformation on Facebook related to COVID-19 is "killing" people. Yet while the explosion and prevalence of misinformation of this type is a serious problem, it is by no means the only threat to public health. Social media's threat to our national mental health is at least as dangerous as anti-vaccine disinformation.
Sound over the top? Then consider that more than half of people we surveyed acknowledged that their social media use intensified their feelings of anxiety, depression or loneliness. They also told us that it contributed to their low self-esteem and made it harder for them to concentrate. Yet despite recognizing these deleterious effects, only about a third said they had taken steps to limit their social media use, such as deleting or suspending social media accounts, turning off their phones or limiting time on their feeds.
I find it incredible that even though users know the harm social media is having on their mental health, they're unwilling – or unable – to limit their use of these platforms. It's a lot like smokers and their cigarettes. We should treat it that way.
What's required is nothing less than digital detox, on a societywide scale.
What if every time you opened Instagram, you first saw a warning label like those found on cigarettes? "Caution: Social Media May Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health."
Or when you logged into Facebook, you saw this: "Warning: Facebook may increase feelings of depression or loneliness and suicidal thoughts."
Or whenever you received a Twitter notification, this came with it: "Warning: Heavy social media use is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety."
There is a strong urge to dismiss concerns about social media as a "moral panic" and to compare it to other communication innovations like the printing press or the telephone, which raised serious worries in their own time that turned out to be largely unfounded. But there's good reason to think we are dealing with a very different problem today.
With a growing body of research confirming the link between social media and poor mental health, it may be time to consider government regulations restricting who can create a social media account. If you must be 18 to buy tobacco products or 21 to drink alcohol, why can any 13-year-old with internet access open a TikTok account?
There's no doubt that, in the coming years, research will produce new insights into social media, its negative effects and possible policy solutions. That's sorely needed. But scientific progress takes time. Meanwhile, more must be done today to lessen the negative impacts of social media, on both an individual and societal level. This means improving the social media environment itself, and encouraging people to use it in a healthier way.
As tech and social media have become more and more addictive, "digital detox" has become more and more popular. A break from smartphones, and especially social media, has been shown, both anecdotally and in research, to increase people's productivity, lift their mood and help them spend more time with loved ones.
The list of people who've turned to digital detox is long. There's the writer who was spending 40 hours a week on her phone and making little progress on her novel; or the tech journalist who couldn't tear himself away from Twitter to the point that he was ignoring his friends; or the New Yorker trying to build a career in fashion who took a break to help him make connections in the city.
But voluntary breaks aren't enough, primarily because people won't take them. Our research has shown that some 40% of social media users would give up their pet or car before they'd give up their accounts. And shockingly, more than 70% said they would not permanently scrap their social media for anything less than $10,000.
This is not healthy behavior.
Social media is currently designed for virality and addiction. People may willingly share their data in exchange for a free service that they value. But they have not agreed to submit to experimental manipulation that encourages slot machine-like behavior and can drive feelings of anxiety and depression. What's more, the algorithmic elevation of sensationalistic content distorts users' perception of political realities, promotes polarization, and worse. Limits, standards and regulation are needed.
It's time we started treating social media for what it is: an addictive activity with serious health implications. Detoxifying from social media will require commitment on several different levels – regulatory, educational and individual.
Ultimately, this challenge can become an opportunity to prioritize mental health and clear thinking, and to cherish that most precious gift of all: our minds.