Stephen Naulls discusses the effects of social media on mental health and the actions we need to see from policymakers to tackle this.
2020 was a year of unrivalled digital interconnectivity. In March, ordinary life was suspended indefinitely in favour of an altogether more virtual existence.
There were endearing stories aplenty amongst the grief and loss of life: elderly grandparents separated from us physically through shielding but brought together by technology, or friends isolating hundreds of miles away beamed into our living rooms for virtual pub quizzes. There were even Zoom dates. I myself recall the touching moment that a father used FaceTime to phone home from his hospital bed for his daughter's 18th birthday. Undoubtedly, there are lots of examples of the benefits social media has had as the glue holding society together through a turbulent year. Social media can also provide a community for vulnerable individuals. For instance, there is good data to suggest that LGBTQIA+ individuals benefit from support and information online in safe spaces.
However, 2020 has also been the year where the darker sides of social media have received greater focus. Documentaries like The Social Dilemma magnified the problematic ways that social media are set up to take advantage of ‘users’ as a product. Social media has also been linked to depression and anxiety amongst young people. Whilst acknowledging the ways social media enriches our lives, many people are grasping for better control over their relationship with platforms. So, what role can policymakers play?
Following the RSPH report #NewFilters in 2017, frighteningly little parliamentary progress has been made to regulate social media. However, there are already some examples of limited self-regulation emerging. Your iPhone will give you a weekly rundown of your ‘screen-time’, displaying how long you spend on each app, and you can now enforce limits on the amount of time you can spend on specific social media apps each day. Both of these things will have a benefit by enabling users to have more understanding of their use of social media. But what about the actual experience of being active on social media regularly? How can we safeguard the mental health of young people from the potentially negative effects?
The image we present of ourselves online is often heavily filtered – a projection of perfection to look back upon fondly, or, thanks to influencer culture, to sustain an income. But for those going through a rough time, social media can facilitate a spiral: when you are at your worst, only seeing others at their very best can exacerbate your feelings of inadequacy. The Left could push for social media companies to force users to be more open about manipulation of content uploaded online. It could also work alongside schools and other organisations to regularly remind people that what we see online is not always an accurate representation of everyday life. This should supplement comprehensive teaching about safety online in the age of social media for all children.
There should also be a role for regulation in flagging up high-risk individuals based on the content they share. Indeed, there have been limited studies published aiming to screen individuals who may benefit from a mental health intervention based on the content of their posts. Where these individuals might otherwise be left unsupported, social media companies could have a statutory duty imposed to algorithmically recognise these posts and signpost the individuals creating them onto additional support.
This clearly raises ethical questions for policymakers and medical professionals alike: should doctors be able to use a person’s social media posts to inform decisions about their care? Should the government be able to mandate companies to monitor posts with such forensic detail that they can pick up on cues indicative of a pending mental health crisis? Who, ultimately, is responsible for monitoring what vulnerable people post online, if anyone at all?
If social media provides a safe space for vulnerable individuals, who is responsible for keeping it safe, or acting if a post suggests someone might be in trouble? When formulating our digital polices for the 2020s, the Left should seek to answer these questions.
The effects of social media on mental health are still unclear in the long-term. Above all else we need to fund more research. A government of the Left should stand poised to act on the findings.
Stephen Naulls is a junior doctor, born and raised in Grimsby, now working in London. He holds a BSc in Neuroscience & Mental Health from Imperial College London and has a special interest in student wellbeing. He tweets at @StephenNaulls