When Justin Rosenstein – software programmer and former engineer for Facebook – declared in October that “It’s very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions that have unintended, negative consequences”, you’d be hard pressed to guess that he was talking about Facebook’s little ‘Like’ button.
And I was surprised to learn recently that Facebook itself is “ripping our society apart”, according to Chamanth Palihapitiya, a former executive at the firm.
These individuals – the pioneer developers of a platform that’s become foundational to modern-day social interaction – now seem to be renouncing the various evils of their creation.
However dramatic they may sound, though, I don’t doubt that they believe they’re preaching the truth.
Their technological innovations have constituted a landmark in our history – albeit one that’s now casting a looming shadow over our future. Even the notion of modern connectedness has undergone a gradual (yet definite) shift, as a result of their work. We’ve reached a state of living ‘alone together’ – so says psychologist Sherry Turkle.
A certain amount of apprehension looking forward seems to make sense, given the horror with which many are looking back on the last decade.
Facebook’s counter-argument against the piles of evidence that their platforms are making us all sadder is that ‘more engagement could improve wellbeing’. Although this reads like a feeble last-ditch attempt to rein us back in to the clutches of evil, it’s an idea that needs to be seriously considered.
Facebook was designed from the offset to enhance our relationships, and to make us happier as a result. In theory, the more we engaged on the platform alongside our social interactions in real life, the stronger those relationships would be; to the benefit of our mental wellbeing. Decades of psychological research has shown us that we’re social creatures – so much so that in the Five Ways to Wellbeing advocated by Mind (and us), ‘Connecting’ is the very first point on the list.
The problems start to arise when social media starts to substitute for, rather than supplement, our interpersonal interactions.
Social isolation affects us all at different times throughout our life and to varying degrees. The risks it poses to your mental health are too often underestimated; choosing to sit and scroll through your phone instead of initiating a conversation with someone seems the easier option, but it’s a solitary activity that draws us away from vocal, face-to-face interaction – the kind our brains are wired to thrive off.
Facebook has conducted research suggesting that ‘passive’ consumption of social media through their platform is where the damage lies. What they suggest instead, however, is active interaction with others through the platform: advice which mirrors that given in the Five Ways to Wellbeing.
In a blogpost published last week, David Ginsberg (Director of Research) and Moira Burke (Research Scientist) at Facebook, noted that research subjects who engaged in active use of social media – sending more messages, posting more comments and having more 1:1 conversations – reported improvements in social support, depression and loneliness. “Just like in person, interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse,” they argued. Similarly, the New Economics Foundation recommends talking to someone instead of sending an email, speaking to someone new and taking five minutes to find out how someone’s really doing, as ways to boost your mental wellbeing.
To Mark Zuckerberg’s (Creator of Facebook) credit, our News Feeds are being modified to show much more original content written by our friends and families, and fewer posts from companies and brands. It’s a direct response to this research: a decision that’s been made to discourage us from ‘passive’ use of the platform, and help us all connect with each other more meaningfully (although it’s cost Facebook’s CEO $3.3bn already.)
Active socialisation can put many of us out of our comfort zones, but its benefits can be nothing short of vital to our health; especially during periods of mental distress.
That’s why Mind have devised Elefriends: an online, anonymous support community for anyone experiencing a mental health problem. A platform which began on – you guessed it – Facebook, the Elefriends community attracted so many users that it eventually gained its own corner of the Internet in 2012. It’s a place where you can safely reach out to others who know exactly how you’re feeling, during the good times and the bad; home to thousands of supportive, like-minded members who you can chat to from the comfort of your own phone.
There’s a danger of using Doomsday-speak to describe a platform that has become so normalised within our day-to-day lives, and that in reality helps millions of people to connect with each other in genuine, meaningful ways, every single day.
We have to acknowledge the adverse effects of using social media too much in unhealthy ways, but it’s reductive to suggest that it’s just a force for evil.
In the knowledge that social media isn’t going anywhere fast, it makes sense to think about ways to avoid depending upon it to entertain us through every idle minute, and instead consider how we can use it responsibly to improve our mood.
If you’re feeling lonely or isolated then try out our peer support groups – they’re free and open to all Lambeth and Southwark residents 18+.
It’s good to talk to people with the same conditions, because we can share feelings and coping methods
Anonymous, PSG member