Mal Fletcher comments on the mounting international research revealing harmful side-effects of using social media.

Mal Fletcher
Mal Fletcher

The social media juggernaut Facebook has finally and very reluctantly acknowledged that engagement with its platform may potentially damage cognition & emotional wellbeing.

Faced with mounting international research revealing harmful side-effects, including addiction and depression, Facebook has most often behaved as tobacco companies once did when confronted with claims about addiction and cancer. It shrugs off criticism with the notion that the evidence is inconclusive.

Now, when even one of its former executives is openly and robustly touting the dangers, Facebook is offering a novel response. It says that while there is potential for unhealthy effects, the answer is yet more engagement online.

To overcome any potential negative effects, it suggests, one must spend even more time engaging on its platform, particularly with good friends, exchanging positive messages.

This shows a wilful disregard for the already sizeable body of research into the dopamine-inducing impact of social media engagement.

Much of this research has been focused on Facebook, in large part because it was one of the first social media platforms and is certainly the world's most ubiquitous. It does, however, carry implications for other social media platforms.

The research shows that social media activity releases small doses of dopamine, a chemical which is associated with alertness and feelings of pleasure, into the user's brain.

A little shot of this chemical, taken in isolation, is fine but over time many small doses equal big ones, producing a problematic addiction.

Another well documented by-product of social media use is feelings of depression and anxiety. This problem is particularly acute among young people, though it is by no means restricted to them.

Few people will post their worst performances online for all the world to see. People tend to post what makes them and their situation present well to an audience - even if the audience is one or two people.

Watching a constant stream of best-moments-or-ideas from multiple senders, whether they're personal friends or not, will slowly erode the confidence of even the most robust ego - perhaps with the exception of the clinically narcissistic or psychopathic ego.

It's high time Facebook and other big social media operators fessed up to the impact their creations are having on cognitive processes.

It is true that technology in itself is not the problem. We are not a product of the technologies we use, but of how we choose the use them.

However, those who make money trading in personal data have a concomitant responsibility to their data providers. At the very least, they are ethically duty-bound to be honest and accountable about the potential impacts of their product.

We would be horrified if a drug company was allowed to amass a fortune by selling a product known to encourage any form of addiction or depression, without (at the very least) being required to announce the same on its packaging.

We'd be even more disturbed if the same drug provider offered a remedy that said, "Take more of our drug and you'll be fine."

We should be no less disturbed that Facebook refuses to acknowledge these same side effects. (Perhaps it is time Facebok was treated as a drug company.)

Instead of offering remedies built on people doing more-of-the-same, Facebook - and arguably other social media companies - should be offering concise, accurate and consistent guidelines about keeping the useage habit in check and in the process protecting relationships and mindsets.

In many ways, these platforms offer a helpful, informative and entertaining service. However, they should be required to acknowledge and mitigate the dangers.

Perhaps they should feature a warning British gambling companies use (and I'm paraphrasing here): "BEFORE the fun stops, stop!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.