Two people I know recently told me they’ve closed their Facebook accounts because of concerns about how the social media platform affects mental health – not just theirs, but everyone’s mental health.
Two doesn’t make a trend. But I suspect many more are reconsidering their relationships with Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram after recent revelations about how the social media giant damages mental and civic health.
First in the Wall Street Journal, then on 60 Minutes, and this week in Congressional testimony, former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen divulged scores of internal Facebook documents and research showing how the social media giant harms the mental health of teenage girls, pollutes political debate, and rewards invective content.
Facebook has faced such criticisms before and years ago the company acknowledged that passively using its platform increased anxiety. Research also has previously linked spending too much time on social media in general with anxiety, depression.
The bombshell here, though, is that Facebook knew long before we did about some of the ill effects of its products. And, according to Haugen, the company routinely puts profits over public safety.
It would be too simplistic to say there aren’t benefits to social media or to deny some of the inspiring ways Facebook connects us.
But we’ve been here before. Research on the deleterious effects of products – digital or otherwise – lags corporate transparency and consumer demand. And sometimes it does so with disastrous results.
Prodded by marketing and often addictive product design, we gobbled up fast food before we knew it was linked to a spate of health issues ranging from diabetes to obesity. We smoked cigarettes believing they were sexy and cool before we knew they caused cancer. And now we’re using social media without knowing the full impact on our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing.
The phrase buyer beware has never rung more true. And Haugen is right to point out that unlike other industries – such as tobacco or automobiles – there’s no outside oversight that allows users access to internal or independent research into Facebook’s products or those of other social media companies. We’re operating in the dark.
But as consumers, and especially as parents, we have the power to make choices that right-size Facebook in our lives, regardless of how or if Congress and governmental regulators compel the company to change.
At the very least it’s time to shift the conversation with our kids about social media. Knowing social media isn’t benign, we need to teach our kids about the potential dangers of Instagram and share what the scant research show about how social media can potentially affect them. Just like we talk to our kids about drugs and alcohol we need to see social media as a substance that can be abused. (See resources below. Also, for a look at Facebook’s recently released internal research on how Instagram affects teen girls click here and here.)
We also can begin our own self-investigation into how we use social media and what we model for our kids. Our kids watch what we do far more than listen to what we say.
I’ve written before about how we can use mindfulness to notice whether our interactions with Facebook or any other social media platform add or subtract from our lives. While we’re waiting to see if Facebook grants parents greater control over the content they allow their children and teens to view, we can share with our kids some internal tools to help them self-regulate while online.
We can tell our kids to notice how they feel before, during, and after they use social media. Do they notice a downshift in their mood or sensations in their body that might tell them they feel anxious? Do they have more positive or negative thoughts while online?
Mindfulness isn’t a magic wand and in the face of a social media behemoth such as Facebook, it may seem less magical. And, yet, if we begin to teach our kids to be more aware of what they feel, sense, and think when they interact with social media they’ll be far more likely to create a healthy relationship with it.