Social Media and Mental Health – Who’s Responsible?

[trigger warning: mentions of self-harm]

The advent of social media has been all-consuming throughout the world. What started off as just one or two apps to stay in touch with people and connect on the Internet has become a way of life. Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter, (to name a few) have millions and millions of users that revolve around them. This isn’t just about saying hi to old friends anymore – social media has enabled us to share our lives, talk about what we love, start businesses, and voice opinions. Just as with everything else in life, this instant connectivity has its pros and cons. Recent times are showing that the cons are proving to be quite serious in their intensity – people are suffering mentally, elections are being tampered with, hate speech is flowing, all on social media. So, how much responsibility lies with those developing the apps?

From a mental health perspective, there has been a lot of conversation around the relationship between social media and emotional wellbeing. Snapchat very recently just announced the set-up of a new tool “Here for You” – it’s going to spread out to users over the next few months and basically, the idea is to be more proactive and sensitive to the users’ needs through 10 second mental health content or wellbeing content showing up on the phones as well as more mental health related shows being curated. Snapchat’s vice president of global policy felt that it was the company’s “responsibility” to provide more positive and impactful content, as well as be sensitive to the needs of vulnerable users. 

There has been conflicting research on the negative impact social media can have. The consensus seems to be that it’s a double-edged sword – it is such a powerful tool for so many people. Communities and support groups have been built over social media, people have made friends they’ve never met, YouTube in particular has had quite the impact through vlogging and people come together through a few swipes and clicks from all over the world. On the other side, it can induce feelings of negativity, anxiety, of not being enough. Such negative impacts affect those who are already mentally in a tough spot and can amplify their feelings of depression or isolation. However, it is important to stress that so far, no study, within its limited capacity, has confirmed that the increased usage of social media, increases the likelihood of depression but this is an ongoing field of research. Where there is no doubt that social media becomes dangerous is when hate speech is allowed to flow freely and with no check, when fake news circles around and increases chaos and fear, or when people flock to attack a single individual for an opinion, create content for more views that is dangerous or be completely wrapped up in the incessant needs for more likes and more followers. This is perhaps where the responsibility of the developers can come in.

Facebook in particular has received a lot of criticism for allowing unconfirmed news to circulate, giving open spaces to white supremacists, promoting Russian propaganda and tampering with election candidates and their media visibility. Facebook received so much heat that the CEO himself issued an apology and made great claims about changing the outlook and monitoring of Facebook. Similarly, other apps over the years have added new features to combat this link that exists between wellbeing and social media. Instagram came up with the Restrict feature, which allows a user to silence comments and interactions with someone bullying them. Pinterest developed the “compassionate search” feature to combat thoughts of depression, anxiety and self-harm. It is safe to say that companies and app developers do feel responsible for the content they allow to flow on the world wide web, and it is not just a PR stunt if they make changes to rules and dimensions of the apps. Everyone is allowed to be themselves on social media and the world of the Internet, but it cannot be at the expense of someone else’s health or feelings and maybe the developers of apps recognize that.  

In their essence, all these social media apps are tools for connectivity, for art, for pursuing passions and talking about what we love. Responsibility is split two ways – first with the developers who have to ensure that they haven’t created a space where there is no accountability for actions and second, with the users themselves to always remember that the control of the usage is in our hands and it is always up to us what we choose to say and what we decide to show. 

[Hooran Mumtaz – she/her]

[Photo credit: Jason Howie/flickr.com]

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