This news shouldn’t receive too many “I’m shocked” emojis. According to a recent 60 Minutes episode, over 1,200 families are now pursuing lawsuits against Meta, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube, and other social media companies. These lawsuits are alleging that such companies’ products and services have had a variety of negative mental health effects on the families’ children. These lawsuits are coming after mental health experts have issued repeated warnings since the mid-2010’s about what social media can do to that thing that sits atop your body. Meaning, your head, you know that thing that tends to be in the middle of your selfies.
During the 60 Minutes segment, reporter Sharyn Alfonsi interviewed some of those family members bringing forth the lawsuits. For example, she talked with Kathleen and Jeff Spence who are suing Meta. The Spences have accused Meta of doing something that doesn’t seem very meta, when the word “meta” is supposed to mean “extremely self-aware, self-reflective.” They have asserted that their daughter, Alexis, developing depression and an eating disorder at the age of 12 after heavily using Instagram, which is owned by Meta. The Spences have complained that Meta did not put in place appropriate precautions so that their daughter wouldn’t be exposed to all those so-called fitness influencers posting pictures of very thin, sometimes sickly thin, bodies. Such images, according to the Spences, could have ended up twisting what their daughter perceived as normal looking bodies. Attorney Matt Bergman, who is representing the Spences, told Alfonsi the following about Meta: “They have intentionally designed a product that is addictive. They understand that if children stay online, they make more money. It doesn’t matter how harmful the material is.”
If the 2010’s were a financial party for social media companies, one of the big questions is who will clean up the resulting mess? Sure, social media has many positives. Sure, it’s brought together many people who may have otherwise never met. Sure, it can help people have more of a voice and learn new information and skills. Sure, it can provide you with more cat videos than you could ever dream of and teach you how to make an owl out of an apple or an owl-pple. Sure, social media has helped facilitate a number of social justice movements.
But social media can be like an anvil and a pair of underwear. When used appropriately, it can very helpful. However, when used inappropriately, social media (as well as an anvil and underwear) can be very harmful. More and more scientific studies have shown the range of deleterious effects that may result from overuse social media. For example, a publication in Clinical Psychological Science in 2017 reported findings from two nationally representative surveys of a total of 506,820 U.S. adolescents in grades 8 through 12 and national statistics on suicide deaths for those ages 13 to 18. This study found that increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among adolescents from 2010 to 2015. Those who spent more time on social media had increased likelihood of reporting mental health issues. Then there was that study published in 2018 in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology of 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania. The study revealed that limiting the students’ Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat use to 10 minutes, per platform, per day was associated with significant reductions in loneliness and depression.
Why can social media result in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues? After all, the websites and apps can seem so fun, right? Social media sites have all those bright colors and fun sounding names like TikTok, Instagram, YouFaceTwit or whatever. And what about those cat videos, all those cat videos? What can be more relaxing than watching a cat flush a toilet or sit inside a pot.
Well, there are several big issues:
1. Social media can make you feel inadequate.
It can be difficult not to base your self-image and feelings of self-worth on comparisons with others. Even when you tell yourself that you should live by your own standards, you can’t help but look around at what’s happening to others. That can be especially the case when you are a kid and don’t quite yet understand yourself. The problem is social media can really blur the boundaries between what’s reality and what’s make believe. It may be obvious to you that a movie like Avatar: The Way of Water does not represent real life because not many people name their kid Spider. But on social media, when other people, who are seemingly not actors, look like they are taking all these fancy vacations, living in posh homes, having lovey-dovey relationships, and flaunting their seemingly oh-so-perfect bodies, your feelings of inadequacy can brew like the insides of a Hot Pocket in a microwave. What you don’t realize is many of these folks may be showing only the good parts of their lives, choreographing a lot of what they happen to be showing, and using lots of photoshop and video editing.
Susan Birne-Stone, PhD, LCSW, a therapist and talk show producer and host based in New York City, explained that at “A time when social connections, peer group identify and acceptance is being developed, adolescents are seeing images that are not real or attainable.” She added that “This leads to ‘social comparison’ which is unrealistic , and unobtainable. This has resulted in teens feeling less than, poor self image.”
Birne-Stone also related that “A common experience I hear from my young patients is a feeling of being left out, and not being able to have/experience what everyone else seems to be doing.”
2. Social media can pressure you to maintain an image.
Being on social media can be like being a Hollywood celebrity, except without all that money and actual political and societal influence stuff. It can be almost as if you said, “I would really like paparazzi following me at all times.” And what could possibly go wrong with all the bad stuff of being a celebrity and little of the good stuff? Feeling like you have to be “on” all the time can be a lot unrelenting pressure that, in turn, can lead to or exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Just look at how many celebrities crack under such stress. And a Hollywood celebrity is likely to have much more means, resources, and help than your typical 14-year-old child. A 14-year-old child probably doesn’t have a publicist to tell everyone, “Young Billy or Billie didn’t really fart when falling on the floor in that video. That is not who Billy or Billie is.”
3. Social media can reduce your contact with other human beings.
Let’s be realistic. When you are watching someone’s video on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram, you are not really interacting with that person. You may be interacting with the social media company and giving them lots of data on you. But you aren’t getting true human-to-human interactions that most people inherently need. Being on social media can be a bit of a meme, myself, and I situation. Every minute spent on social media wondering what Kylie Jenner is wearing is one less minute that you can invest in building real human relationships with others. And you need real human relationships for good mental health. Such relationships help you grow and put things in better perspective. They can help you feel better about yourself and serve as your support network during stressful times.
Moreover, the rules and conventions of social media interactions can be very different from the rules and conventions of real human-to-human interactions. You can’t just throw around emojis in a real face-to-face conversation or keep saying “lol” at a party. Spending too much time on social media can in turn reduce your ability to really communicate with others, which can be important when you are struggling with mental health issues.
4. Social media can keep you from doing other things.
There’s a joke that goes, “What’s the opposite of social media? A social life.” A social life not only brings other real humans into your life but it also helps you do other activities that as a result can improve your mental health. For example, when you are constantly scrolling through Instagram posts, how likely is it that you are participating in sports and getting physical activity at the same time? Research has shown that physical activity correlates with mental wellness among kids.
5. Social media can mess with your sleep.
Speaking of research, take a look at a study published in a 2016 issue of the Journal of Adolescence that measured overall social media use, nighttime-specific social media use, emotional investment in social media, sleep quality, self-esteem and levels of anxiety and depression among 467 Scottish adolescents. That study found that those who used social media more and were more emotionally invested in social media tended to have poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Social media may affect your sleep in three general ways. First, if you are scrolling through your feeds at 4:30 am, you are not sleeping, unless you are somehow sleep-scrolling, which would be concerning in and of itself. Secondly, social media can fill your head with images, sounds, and thoughts that may influence your sleep quality. Finally, exposure to all that screen light that’s different from the normal daytime-nighttime changes in lighting may affect your Circadian rhythm. And that messed-up Circadian rhythm is gonna get you when you are trying to sleep. Ultimately, lack of good sleep can greatly affect your mental health.
6. Social media can connect you with dangerous people and expose you to cyberbullying
Unlike a tweet, there’s no character limit as to who is on social media. While social media can connect you with some long-lost friends or folks you finally resonate with, it can also connect you with that dude in the basement with way too many taxidermy items everywhere and grenades stuffed in his underwear. Often times, you have no idea who happens to be manning or womanning a given social media account behind the scenes. Who knows what that person’s intentions may be. That person may be interested in making you unhappy or suffer just to make himself or herself feel better. He or she could even be trying to prey on people or cause chaos. Who knows what kind of sexist, racist, or other discriminatory viewpoints that person may be espousing and how desperately that person wants to let out his or her internal unhappiness and anger out on some innocent person.
Social media may embolden people to say and do things that they might otherwise be too afraid to do in person. For example, how many people will have the stones to walk into an elevator and yell, “I’m an alpha male” to you. Yet, “alpha male” was exactly what was trending on Twitter this weekend after a social media account said just that. As a result, social media can essentially give more power to bullies.
Additionally, social media has extended the boundaries within which bullying can occur. Birne-Stone said, “Technology has given platforms for name calling and bullying that reach a wider audience and can be viewed repeatedly without an end date.”
7. Social media can invade privacy.
Even the seemingly most extraverted of people want to keep at least certain things in their lives private. No matter how brilliant or put together you may think you are, you will do stupid stuff here and there, especially when you are a kid and your brain is basically still like cake mix in the process of becoming a cake. Having that embarrassing photo or video clip of you posted on social media and captured for posterity can end up being quite a traumatic event. Unfortunately, this can leave kids feeling like they have no recourse and as a result spiraling into a very bad mental state.
8. Social media can spread incorrect and harmful ideas and thoughts.
News flash. People lie on social media. They may lie about a lot of things. And these lies can affect what you think about your body and yourself. In fact, when people try to see you things such as fad diets and questionable health products, one tact is to tell you how bad you and your current body are so that you feel compelled to purchase whatever they happen to be selling. Another tactic is to sow mistrust in everything so that you either spend money out of fear or are more willing to listen to fringy ideas. All of these tactics seem to working among a number of adults, as evidenced by the spread of conspiracy theories like claims that birds aren’t real, reptiles run the government, the Earth is flat, and Covid-19 vaccines can turn you into a gigantic magnet and the paranoia that they have inspired. Imagine what similar disinformation can be doing to kids.
9. Social media can prompt harmful activities.
Gee what harmful activities have stuff on social media gotten people to do? Could it be getting people to walk or drive around while blindfolded? How about pouring boiling water on each other or getting people to put Tide Pods in their mouths? Perhaps it’s trying to swallow enough Benadryl so that you can start hallucinating? While not all social media-induced activities are as blatant as these, such social media challenges have shown how effective posts on these platforms can be at getting people to do what they may not normally think of doing. The question is how many other much more subtle social media influences are out there? Could they be gradually moving kids to do activities that a progressively more self-harming such as changing their eating habits or separating themselves more and more from reality? Later in the 60 Minutes segment, Alfonsi spoke to Toney and Brandy Roberts, who had tragically lost their daughter Englyn to death by self-hanging. The Roberts subsequently found that their daughter had received from a friend a video on Instagram that showed a lady pretending to hang herself. One has to wonder whether such ideas would have even entered her head had she not seen them on social media.
10. Social media is designed to addict you.
Ultimately, you have to look at the business models for many social media companies. If they earn money from selling advertisements or selling the data that they collect from you, then take a wild guess as to what are their executives’ incentives may be? Could it could be to keep you effectively super-glued to their platforms as long and as much as possible? In other words, could they want to get you to keep using their products and services over and over again and essentially get addicted to them? Hmm, has that ever happened in any other industry? Let’s smoke out the possibilities. How going to-back-oh to the 1930’s and 1940’s. While it may be obvious now that sucking smoke into your lungs is not good for you, many in the public may not have been aware of this back then. It was subsequently discovered that tobacco companies had suppressed scientific studies that showed how bad smoking is for your health. The question then is whether the current situation with social media use could be somewhat similar to tobacco use before the 1950s?
Of course, social media is not exactly the same as tobacco products. It’s not all bad. As indicated earlier, social media clearly can bring many benefits when it’s used appropriately and in moderation. Therefore, the solution certainly is not to ban social media. Instead, the key is making social media use and content is more balanced and informed. That may be easier said than done for kids. While self-moderating may be easier for adults, with the possible exception of some billionaires and politicians, it’s a whole more difficult for kids. That’s especially true when kids are still at the “Gee, I have hormones” or “Hmm, what are these body parts and what can they do” stage.
So as a parent, it will be important to make sure that your kids realize how much fake stuff is on social media and how fleeting and irrelevant popularity on social media can be. You should encourage your kids to build and maintain real human relationships as well as hobbies and activities that don’t involve social media. Get your kids to think more scientifically and more critically assess different people, things, and accounts on social media.
While you can try to restrict your kids’ social media use, they will always be able to find ways to get around these restrictions if they don’t develop critical thinking abilities for themselves. Plus, kids tend to mirror what you do rather than what you say. If you yourself are yelling at people on social media or not able to sift fact from fiction, take a wild guess as to what they are going to end up doing.
All that being said, it’s probably way too much to foist all of the social media moderation responsibility on busy parents. That would be like telling parents, “Oh, and by the way, from now on you will be responsible for operating all the traffic lights and road signs out there so that your kids won’t get hit by a car.” It’s too much to expect parents to fend off the tidal wave of social media armed only with colanders. Instead, everyone in society has to find some way of working together to tackle this growing immense problem.
Therefore, social media probably can’t continue as it has this past decade in a complete Wild, Wild West, seemingly anything goes culture. Many social media executives have appeared to be making money hand over dab while gaining tremendous influence over society. As the Spider Man films have told you, with great power comes great responsibility. But when given the chance over the past decade, how many social media executives have really addressed privacy and mental health concerns raised by health professionals, other experts, and families? When self-regulation doesn’t emerge naturally, lawsuits and external regulations follow. And if you believe that every company out there will willingly self-regulate itself, then maybe you’ve been too budy trading cryptocurrency on the FTX exchange to notice what’s been going on recently.