What’s next, statutory warnings on social media?

On Friday, 15 December, two researchers from Facebook Inc. published a startling research note on the company’s corporate blog. The note was titled Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us? The note meandered along, but it contained an extraordinary admission of partial culpability from what is arguably the world’s leading social media company.

Facebook has maintained for years that it is a force for good in this world, so the partial admission of culpability in the blog is startling. The blog post is quite dense as it tries to present a “balanced” view where it cites research on both sides—one set claims that social media is bad for us while the other set states that social media can actually be a force for good. The post concludes that whether social media is good or bad for us comes down to how an individual actually uses social media, and I quote from it below:

“According to the research, it really comes down to how you use the technology. For example, on social media, you can passively scroll through posts, much like watching TV, or actively interact with friends — messaging and commenting on each other’s posts. 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.

“The bad: In general, when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information — reading but not interacting with people — they report feeling worse after. In one experiment, University of Michigan students randomly assigned to read Facebook for 10 minutes were in a worse mood at the end of the day than students assigned to post or talk to friends on Facebook. A study from UC San Diego and Yale found that people who clicked on about four times as many links as the average person, or who liked twice as many posts, reported worse mental health than average in a survey. Though the causes aren’t clear, researchers hypothesize that reading about others online might lead to negative social comparison — and perhaps even more so than offline, since people’s posts are often more curated and flattering. Another theory is that the internet takes people away from social engagement in person.

“The good: On the other hand, actively interacting with people — especially sharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactions — is linked to improvements in well-being. This ability to connect with relatives, classmates, and colleagues is what drew many of us to Facebook in the first place, and it’s no surprise that staying in touch with these friends and loved ones brings us joy and strengthens our sense of community.”

There is no doubt that the US election events of 2016, where social media was used heavily to influence people’s opinions, and the ability that platforms like Facebook and WhatsApp give people who want to fan “fake news” might be behind some of this partial admission of guilt. The blog goes on to list the various ways in which Facebook is trying to change itself so that its platform gets used only for the good. It discloses that the company uses artificial intelligence which monitors posts and messages to make sure they do not have inflammatory content—or get this—that the posts and messages being posted by a user are not early warnings being issued by a person who is contemplating suicide.

Meanwhile, some of Facebook’s former executives have come out against their former employer, and about social media in general. The latest among them is Chamath Palihapitiya who said in a speech at Stanford that he feels “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped build. “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said, before recommending that people take a “hard break” from social media.

Palihapitiya’s comments were not only about Facebook, but on the wider social media network online. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-ups.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth…. this is a global problem.”

The hand-wringing by Facebook after stoutly defending itself for a number of years sounds like the early reactions of the tobacco industry when researchers established a clear link between smoking, cancer and coronary disease. After denying it at first, the industry began to grudgingly comply by adding statutory warnings about the health effects of smoking. At first, these were in small print, but as the years have passed, these warnings are now increasingly graphic, even nauseating. The liquor industry has had to adjust its advertising as well, after sustained campaigns by organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Both common wisdom and academic research have been telling us for a while that countless hours spent on the time-sink that is social media can have far reaching consequences on our emotional well-being. Philosophers around the world have known what causes unhappiness for centuries.

We could dwell here on several Eastern ancients who described the unhappy human condition, but instead, here are some words from Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish thinker who lived in the early 19th century: “The unhappy person is one who has his ideal, the content of his life, the fullness of his consciousness, the essence of his being, in some manner outside of himself. The unhappy man is always absent from himself, never present to himself. But one can be absent, obviously, either in the past or in the future. This adequately circumscribes the entire territory of the unhappy consciousness.”

Maybe the day is not far off when social media sites allow for statutory warnings. They might even show up as targeted advertisements… but the choice is still yours, Mr/Ms User, just like it is whether you want to drink or smoke. Just don’t swallow the alcohol or inhale the smoke.

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