Social Media Mental Health Crisis: Its Potential Politicization

Social media have political utility; as feeds of information and news, as instruments for connectivity and organization, and even as weapons of civil oppression. Between Facebook’s role in disseminating spurious political news during the 2016 election; Turkey’s recent mass arrest of 1,600 dissident social media users; and even Twitter’s facilitation (though only partial) of protest during the Arab Spring, the political dimensions of social media are ever apparent. But what can be said about the recreational users of social media? The people who routinely check their Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat feeds for the conventional, social reasons? Most view these users as innocuous participants in a common cultural practice; their use of social media, in and of itself, appears to take no political form.

This is incorrect. As research comes out about the damaging psychological effects of social media use, this entrenched social behavior may well evolve into a contestable political issue as a crisis of mental health.

When considering the possibility of social media use as a future public health issue, there are a few things to examine. First, does it adversely affect people’s health, and how? Second, if yes, then what is the scale of the impact? And third, are there initiatives to combat it, and how will they change in the future? Closer looks into each of these areas reveal that social medias’ harmful psychological effects are slowly seeping into both the public and governmental consciousness.

By looking at the psychological effects of social media use at an individual level, we can see a broad range of adverse consequences. In March of this year, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health published a landmark article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The article, titled More Social Connection Online Tied to Increasing Feelings of Isolation, proved a positive relationship between young adult’s social media use and their experience of social isolation. Brian A. Primack and his colleagues sampled 1,787 U.S. adults ages 19 through 32, using a tool called Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System, and concluded:

“…participants who used social media more than two hours a day had twice the odds for perceived social isolation than their peers who spent less than half an hour on social media each day. And participants who visited various social media platforms 58 or more times per week had about triple the odds of perceived social isolation than those who visited fewer than nine times per week.“

Another study, conducted by the same team at Pitt this April, concluded similar findings but of a graver nature. This study, titled Use of multiple social media platforms and symptoms of depression and anxiety: A nationally-representative study among U.S. young adults, found:

“Use of multiple [social media] platforms is independently associated with symptoms of depression and anxiety,even when controlling for overall [time spent on social media]. These associations are strong enough that it may be valuable for clinicians to ask individuals with depression and anxiety about multiple platform use and to counsel regarding this potential contributing factor.”

Various other scientific studies, including one by Logan E. Annisette of the Department of Psychology at the University of Windsor, found harmful psychological, and even morally damaging effects with even just brief social media use. This study, titled Social media, texting, and personality: A test of the shallowing hypothesis, concluded:

“Frequent use of ultra-brief social media is associated with negative effects on the user’s use of reflective thought and some indicators of compromised moral judgment. This can potentially lead to a decline in academic performance and increased difficulty in the formation of social relationships; two extremely important tasks for teenagers and young adults, the age groups that text and use social media to the greatest degree.”

These studies suggest that social media use, with either brief or prolonged engagement, has a broad range of negative impacts on mental health.

Outside of the scientific realm, academics have quietly been producing an increasing number of books on the topic as well. These authors include Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, and Tim Wu, a Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. From a sociological perspective, Wu argues that social media legitimize self-aggrandizement as an objective for its users. He believes this has harmfully warped our understanding of our existence and it’s relation to others. Turkle has similar thoughts. To her, social media have premised our identities on digital enhancement. This has rendered people unhealthily tethered to idealized and oversimplified versions of themselves, stifling creativity and proliferating anxieties. Seen in light of the psychological research, the case is strong for social media having a significant negative impact on mental and social health.

The unfortunate reality is that mental health issues and social isolation are at epidemic levels among young adults, and sadly, appear to be worsening. In a study published in the journal Pediatrics on November 14, it was discovered that there was a 37% increase in reported major depressive episodes among youth between the years 2005 and 2014. The U.S Government confirmed these findings in a report released by the Department of Health and Human Services, where it concluded that more than three million adolescents aged 12-17 reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and more than two million reported severe depression that impeded their daily functioning.

The affliction is even more pervasive among college-aged adults, where rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed over recent years. According to a 2012 report produced by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 25% of college students have a diagnosable mental illness and have been treated in the past year. Provided there is now less stigma surrounding mental illness, and correspondingly they are more easily diagnosed, a quarter of college students with psychological disorders is a profoundly troubling reflection of the state of public mental health.

And neither is the issue confined to the U.S. In 2014, for example, the World Health Organization stated that depression is the top cause of illness and disability among adolescents globally.

Taken as a whole, these statistics paint a staggering, saddening portrait of mental health for both American and global youth. Though many factors have contributed, social media usage, as the aforementioned studies reflect, is undeniably a major one. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Facebook’s user-ship between 2008 and the end of 2014 grew by 1.2 billion people, and that according to the Pew Research Center as of 2016, 88% of all online Americans use Facebook, three quarters of whom check it daily.

Reactions to adverse social media use have taken a number of different forms. On an individual level, it appears that people are growing increasingly aware of their psychological sensitivity to it. This past January, callers on a local radio station in D.C explained how they were swearing off social media as their New Year’s resolution; just like one would with say, sugar, or alcohol. It’s also increasingly common for people to leave social media altogether. But for those who have not sworn it off, or worse are increasing their consumption or are even growing addicted, rehabilitation and therapy programs are launching at rapid rates.

A company outside of Seattle, The reSTART Life Centre, has recently started offering “digital addiction therapy”, the first of its kind, to children as young as 13. Moreover a Google-search of social media addiction rehabilitation produces dozens of results, with programs spanning from days to weeks, offered all across the country. Even Pope Francis has made comments warning the youth to resist the technology. And as an unnamed author for AP news described, the Pope “implicitly addressed many aspects of social media culture that have caused concern to psychologists”.

I believe we will eventually see intervention from the federal government as well. Perhaps it will come in the form of a research initiative from the Dept. of Health and Human Services, or perhaps the First Lady’s formal announcement of her campaign promise to promote the youth to have healthier, or even reduced, relationships with social media. On the campaign trail she went on record, in one of her very few speeches, to say, “We must find better ways to honor and support the basic goodness of our children, especially in social media.” Consider that in light of statements from the Pope, increasing scientific studies, and growing public health initiatives, and thus the momentum is building.

As even more research comes out, and that research begins to gradually open the public’s eyes, it is more likely that we will see a growing number private-sector initiatives promoting social media reduction, along with increased offerings of counseling services in the very near future. As the idea of social media use as a public health issue is clearly picking up traction, it is only a matter of when, and not if, it finally enters the political arena.

When something akin to Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign comes along to combat social media, pushback from the tech-sector is a given. Facebook recently opened a corporate office only four blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Ave, and as some analysts have predicted their eventually reaching the first ever trillion-dollar evaluation, their lobbying efforts in D.C., backed by a bottomless war chest, will be nothing short of ferocious. Naturally, one imagines they would fight tooth and nail to maintain their products’ reputation as positive and connective (even while overwhelming evidence demonstrates that it isn’t, see studies above) and even given Mark Zuckerberg’s vociferous (but perhaps deceptive) civic leanings, the company would ultimately have to bend to the interests of its shareholders.

Though much of this is speculative, it will be interesting to see if a new political and public health theatre surrounding adverse social media use emerges in D.C.; the foundations appear to be laid, and public sentiment is beginning to shift. That said, there is a foreboding development that may serve to complicate the issue. A potential conflict of interest could arise in light of rumors that Zuckerberg, fueled by his recent cross-country tour, may be running for president in the 2020 election. It is also worth mentioning that global social media use increased by 21% last year to a total of 2.8 billion users. Hopefully as knowledge spreads of it’s virulent potential to impact public health, we will see this rate decrease.

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