I used to think social media was essentially a force for good, whether it was to initiate the Arab spring of 2011, or simply as a useful tool for bringing together like-minded people to share videos of ninja cats. Having spent a lot of time thinking about mental health, I even saw social media’s much-maligned potential for anonymity as a good thing, helping people to open up about problems when they might not feel able to do so in that physical space we still quaintly call real life.
I also knew from my own experience that it could sometimes provide a happy distraction from the evil twins of anxiety and depression. I have made friends online. As an author, it’s also been a great way to test new ideas, and has taken storytelling from its castle in the sky back down to the metaphorical (now hashtag-heavy) campfire. As someone who often finds social situations mentally exhausting, social media seemed far more solution than problem.
Yes, I would occasionally feel that maybe staring at my Twitter feed near-continuously for seven hours wasn’t that healthy, especially when I was arguing with an army of Trump fans telling me to jump off a cliff. Yes, I’d see articles warning of the dangers of excessive internet use, but I dismissed these as traditional, reactionary takes. I saw social media naysayers as the first reviewers of Technicolor movies, who felt the colour distracted from the story, or were like the people who walked out on Bob Dylan at Newport folk festival for playing an electric guitar, or like those who warned that radio or TV or video games or miniskirts, or hip-hop or selfies or fidget spinners or whatever, would lead to the end of civilisation.
I remember a Daily Mail headline, “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”, which made things even clearer: to be anti-social media was to be hysterically on the wrong side of history.
Then I started the research for a book I am writing on how the external world affects our mental health. I wanted to acknowledge the downsides of social media, but to argue that far from being a force for ill,it offers a safe place where the insanities of life elsewhere can be processed and articulated.
But the deeper into the research I went, the harder it was to sustain this argument. Besides the Daily Mail screeching about the dangers, other people – scientists, psychologists, tech insiders and internet users themselves – were highlighting ways in which social media use was damaging health.
Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.
And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.
The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.
Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed. If you have friends you only ever talk to on Facebook, your entire relationship with them is framed by commerce. When we willingly choose to become unpaid content providers, we commercialise ourselves. And we are encouraged to be obsessed with numbers (of followers, messages, comments, retweets, favourites), as if operating in a kind of friend economy, an emotional stock market where the stock is ourselves and where we are encouraged to weigh our worth against others.
Of course, humans comparing themselves to others isn’t new. But when the others are every human on the internet, people end up comparing themselves – their looks, their relationships, their wealth, their lives – to the carefully filtered lives of people they would never meet in the real world – and feeling inadequate.
Abuse is another serious issue. In his devastating account of online entrepreneurs and their values, Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin talks of social media’s “Colosseum culture” of throwing people to the lions. “Punishing strangers ought to be a risky endeavour,” he writes. “But the anonymity of the internet shields the person who punishes the stranger.”
Reading first-hand accounts by people with bulimia and anorexia who are convinced that social media exacerbated or even triggered their illnesses, I began to realise something: this situation is not the equivalent of Bob Dylan’s electric guitar. It is closer to the tobacco or fast-food industries, where vested interests deny the existence of blatant problems that were not there before.
To ignore it, to let companies shape and exploit and steal our lives, would be the ultra-conservative option. The one that says free markets have their own morality. The one that is fine entrusting our future collective health to tech billionaires. The one that believes, totally, in free will; and that mental health problems are either not significant, or are entirely of the individual’s making.
We are traditionally far better at realising risks to physical health than to mental health, even when they are interrelated. If we can accept that our physical health can be shaped by society – by secondhand smoke or a bad diet – then we must accept that our mental health can be too. And as our social spaces increasingly become digital spaces, we need to look seriously and urgently at how these new, business-owned societies are affecting our minds. We must try to see how the rising mental health crisis may be related to the way people are living and interacting.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says that “by giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent”. But what we really need to do is make social media transparent.
Of course, we won’t stop using it – I certainly won’t – but precisely for that reason we need to know more about what it is doing to us. To our politics, to our health, to the future generation, and to the world around us. We need to ensure we are still the ones using the technology – and that the technology isn’t using us.