Protecting the mind behind our screens

Illustration of a person strapped to a phone
Aarthi Muthukumar /Senior Staff

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Content warning: suicide, eating disorders, body image

Growing up, my mother always had a rule that no digital devices were allowed during a family meal. The requirement seemed straightforward — that is, until a buzz or ringtone asserted that a phone triumphed over food and our time together. Even during other rare occasions when everyone managed to ignore the nagging notifications of these digital screens, technology always felt present both at the dinner table and in the wiring of our minds.

At our fingertips and in many of our pockets exist devices possessing a reach that grows with each virtual like, retweet and comment. As studies continually investigate the correlation between social media usage and mental health, we have become acutely attuned to the deeper reality behind the screen. Modern online platforms now hold the power to use us as much as — and sometimes even more than — we use them.

Recent whistleblower claims about Facebook alleged that this online powerhouse has favored capitalization and profit over mitigating dangers to the public, including online hate speech and the propagation of misinformation. The surfacing of these testimonies brings the reliability and intentions of social media platforms into question on a congressional level.

A survey on Facebook’s impact on the mental health of younger users in the United Kingdom also found that 13.5% of teen girls noticed an increase in suicidal thoughts once they began using Instagram. In a separate study, research found that 17% of teen girls felt their eating disorders amplified after they started using Instagram. 32% of teen girls also felt that viewing Instagram content made them feel more negative about their physical image. Based on this data, Facebook was accused of targeting audiences through algorithms specifically designed to cater to a younger population of users. While these statistics may not directly indicate causation nor represent entire populations, they allude to the vast control a social media platform possesses. However, Facebook’s power was overridden when the company’s plans to create Instagram for children were turned down by attorneys general from 44 states and territories. The reasoning behind these responses stemmed from grave concerns about social media’s impact on mental health and cyber bullying.

Facebook has cited research from the Oxford Internet Institute in response to some of these claims. Based on different studies, Nikita Aggarwal, faculty of law at the University of Oxford and co-author of a paper for the institute’s Internet Policy Review, noted how the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the systemic importance of Facebook for enabling the exchange of information and accessibility to public health advice. Aggarwal emphasizes the ethical and legal importance behind sustaining social networks like Facebook and Google in her research. Her references to the connections forged through social media don’t just act at the institutional level, but also impact the voices and minds of individual users.

One method that has become increasingly relevant for addressing mental health is online activism. Through hashtags and posts, social media users can share stories about mental health while fostering a community of support. From a positive perspective, online platforms enable society to commiserate in a way that brings together people of many diverse backgrounds and identities. However, L. Ayu Saraswati notes in her book “Pain Generation: Social Media, Feminist Activism, and the Neoliberal Selfiethat social media platforms demand affect alienation in order to grow the numbers of users and interactions. By numbing emotional responses to fit them into a sensory distraction on a screen, online platforms increasingly use users.

This online anesthetic achieved through what Saraswati calls “phantasmagoria” convolutes activism. Those searching for resources are therefore denied the support to truly address detriments to mental health like systemic houselessness, unemployment, racism, ableism, sexual and gender violence, insufficient healthcare, accessibility to recovery resources and many other issues of everyday life that are governed by structural powers far beyond social media’s grasp.

Given these implications of social media’s power, the question remains as to what society can do to facilitate technology in a manner that supports progression while also protecting the minds of online users. With the persistence of the COVID-19 pandemic, preservation of mental health seems an even greater necessity. However, a previous study by UC Berkeley research fellow Lucía Magis-Weinberg and her project group, Transitions, on adolescents and social media usage found that online platforms often aided in combating feelings of loneliness during the recent lockdown. The research also emphasized the importance of favoring quality over quantity when it came to interacting with others through social media.

Another study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explored the potential for social media usage to beneficially affect mental well-being. The findings indicated a positive correlation between social networking through online platforms and the mental health of participants. Even with this reassurance, the researchers also acknowledged how differences of race, income and education impact accessibility to technology, and social media platforms themselves widen preexisting disparities between these demographics. Susceptibility to unequal treatment from online platforms therefore threatens mental wellness, especially that of marginalized communities.

Congressional, social and psychological debates regarding social media’s effects on mental health reveal how our minds are confined by the rules that govern our content, reactions and overall activity with online platforms. While social media holds space to connect across barriers of distance and time, its platforms rewire our brains to often overlook broader systemic powers that may fall short of providing access to mental health resources. Whether you manage to resist the lure during a family meal or find yourself inseparable from social media, always remember to check in with the mind outside of the screen.

Adriana Temprano is the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee Chair. Contact her at [email protected].

A previous version of this article may have implied that Facebook cited a paper co-authored by Aggarwal. In fact, Facebook has not directly cited the paper.