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The Social Dilemma: Are Facebook and Instagram Really Affecting Our Mental Health?

In the wake of Netflix’s hit docudrama, many people are rightly concerned about the negative effects of Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms on our self-confidence, body image, and psychological well-being — but are there other forces at play too?

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In The Social Dilemma tech experts discuss the dangerous human impact of social networking.

Netflix’s hit docudrama The Social Dilemma paints a dystopian picture of social media, arguing that Silicon Valley’s pervasive technology is now an existential threat to humanity. Having spent the past decade fine-tuning their now very smart algorithms, the brains behind Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, among the other dominant platforms, have got us hooked. With the average adult worldwide spending two hours a day on social media and the average American teenager spending up to nine hours a dayresearch estimates that social-media addiction now affects almost half a million people globally. But just how bad is social media for our mental health?
The film argues that social media is highly addictive and manipulatively designed based on what’s called an attention-extraction model to control our behavior and keep us scrolling and wanting more. In doing so, it exploits our human desire for the connection to and validation of others, giving us a dopamine hit every time we get a like or reply without ever actually fulfilling our deep human needs. This can lead, as the documentary argues, to a whole host of negative emotions, which drive us back to social media for that quick fix.

As such, social media becomes a kind of digital pacifier, a maladaptive coping strategy used whenever we feel lonely, uncomfortable, or sad. As argued by the film’s protagonist Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and founder of the Centre for Humane Technology, this is a huge danger to our mental well-being — and it is only going to increase due to the lack of regulation in place for these companies.

Fear of the Unknown

While the documentary’s hyperbolic framing is compelling, the fear of new technologies is nothing unusual. “It is natural to be concerned about any new technology that reaches a certain level of popularity in society and so also to be concerned about social media,” Amy Orben, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Emmanuel College, tells Vogue. But are our concerns misplaced?

Mental illness rates in high-income countries are on the rise, and this is correlative with increased social-media use— but correlation does not necessarily equal causation. “The correlation between social media and mental health seems to be about the same as the correlation between eating potatoes and mental health: small and weak,” says Paul Marsden, a chartered psychologist in the cyberpsychology section of the British Psychological Society.

Digital Dependency

The Social Dilemma’s critique comes at an interesting time when more of us than ever are dependent on digital modes of connection. “Social media can wreak havoc with our confidence but can also keep us feeling less lonely and more connected,” explains Tabitha Goldstaub, chair of the UK government’s A.I. council and author of How to Talk to Robots: A Girls’ Guide to a Future Dominated by A.I. As many of us are forced to socially distance, we have found a lifeline in social media’s ability to keep us connected to our loved ones. In the absence of physical interaction, we have learned new virtual languages — sharing texts, memes, and emojis — with friends, family, and colleagues that can only serve to better our collective mental health.

Covid-19 aside, social media has been pivotal in connecting like-minded people. It has played a fundamental part in various forms of grassroots activism — Black Lives Matter or the #MeToo movement—that have caused some of the most substantial social changes we’ve seen in years.

In the same way, the growth of specific-interest online communities has had a positive impact on some people’s mental well-being. For example, research shows that social media can help marginalized teens forge new social connections. “It can make us feel part of a global niche community that you’d never have been able to bond with in the same way pre–social media,” says Goldstaub. “The fact that people anywhere in the world can find someone to connect with is pretty magic.”

Certainly, more research is needed on the topic, but the consensus among most psychologists is that it’s not necessarily the social-media platforms themselves rather than the content we are consuming that has the biggest impact on our mental health. “We need to be attentive to certain types of content and certain individuals or times in our life where we are more susceptible to the negative influences of social media,” explains Orben. Indeed, we must be more critical when generalizing about social-media use: 20 minutes chatting with friends on Facebook Messenger is not the same as 20 minutes looking at distressing content.

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