Digital disconnection and the impact of social media on mental health

Digital disconnection and the impact of social media on mental health

Publication date: 1/9/2022 9:00:59 AM

Modified date: 9/01/2022 9:00:08 AM

In 2015, Sherry Turkle, a licensed sociologist and psychologist, wrote the bestselling book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talking in the Digital Ageon how to replace in-person interactions with devices such as smartphones.

This book was released years after Facebook and other platforms began not only replacing conversations, but also increasing the amount of time people spend on the Internet.

Smartphones have become such a big part of our lives that even kids and teens own them. There is no doubt that these devices serve a purpose for both emergency and safety reasons, but what differs is the addictive nature of smartphones, especially for children and young adults, as highlighted by the work of Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge.

Both of these social psychologists have written about the increasing use of digital devices and the mental health of adolescents. The increases they saw in loneliness, depression, and suicidal tendencies prompted further investigation. They discovered that as the mental health of teens deteriorated, the majority of Americans were buying smartphones. They reported that by 2015, two-thirds of young adults owned these devices and by 2019, depression had nearly doubled.

But it wasn’t just the increasing ownership and use of smartphones that was worrisome. In the years leading up to 2015, there was another development in the digital world. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are becoming more aggressive and successful in attracting all people, especially young people, to their sites through algorithms and other “sharing” tricks.

More recent data from Facebook’s own research shows that clinical symptoms of suicidal tendencies and depression are associated with social media use, particularly by adolescent girls and young women. Experts called it “comparison and despair” and the specific disorder that is reflected in the data is eating disorders.

Social media has become a popular part of our daily lives. The vast majority of people in the United States and around the world rely on digital versus traditional media. The accelerated electronic exchange of knowledge and information on a wide range of topics has certainly been invaluable.

Major platforms dominate, but many online communities have emerged over the past decade and they have had positive rather than negative consequences. Forming small groups and communities that are managed and controlled from the inside have not seen the anger and controversy that tend to occur on certain platforms like Twitter, for example.

I think it’s fair to say that the bigger platforms know what they can do to reduce the risk. However, it goes against their business models to reduce device usage. Platforms could also improve in the area of ​​age and identity verification. In the absence of these kinds of improvements, suffice it to say that social media is here to stay with major platforms acknowledging that more regulation is needed in some way by federal regulators.

While the use of smartphones and social media can be addictive for many of us, the main concern is how and how the biggest platforms attract, engage and influence the lives of our next generation. So what can we do to protect the most vulnerable age groups and those at clinical risk? Here are suggestions from experts, which begin with the acceptance of all device users of personal responsibility for their actions.

The primary directive is to reduce the amount of time we spend on our smartphones, which goes against the atoms of user feeds and algorithms designed to keep us all engaged. For parents, this means working to keep kids away from their devices for longer periods of time. Parents should restrict the use of devices in the evening, especially towards bedtime, as experts note that there can be lasting negative effects when their use interferes with sleep.

Finally, while all of the above may be challenging due to the “fear of missing out,” delaying children’s entry into social media initially will reduce their online risk. Unfortunately, due to the poor detection methods by the major platforms, children under the age of 10 pretending to be older are sometimes able to open accounts.

There is no doubt that as we enter the new 2022 year, the proverbial social media train has left the station. Now is the time for individuals, tech companies and the government to step up to protect vulnerable groups from the harmful consequences of social media. Doing so will lead to a younger generation and a stronger, safer and more successful society.

(Vic Topo is president and CEO of the Center for Life Management in Derry.)


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