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by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News

I’m not a mental health professional, but it’s obvious to me that many people today are dealing with stress, anxiety, fear and depression. This can be true for people of any age and background, but there are special considerations when it comes to young people and marginalized people, especially if they feel they are under attack, such as many in the LGBTQ+ community.

Some of this anxiety stems from exposure to media, but the media is – for the most part – the messenger of scary news, not the cause of it. The news media didn’t cause a shooter to kill three children and three adults at a Nashville elementary school or cause the death of 19 students and two teachers in Ulvade, Texas, last year, but the news of these tragedies does have an emotional impact on those who consume it, including young children who not only hear about these tragedies but now have to endure “active shooter drills” because of the real possibility it could happen at their school.

Social media further amplifies things that increasingly worry people, including concerns about the state of our democracy and the impact of climate change.

Some of this anxiety is the result of false or highly exaggerated fear-mongering on social media as well as by some TV and radio hosts whose ratings seem to be correlated with their ability to frighten their audience into believing that some of their fellow Americans are enemies out to destroy their way of life. But much of it is in response to actual news. The UN Secretary-General’s recent warning that our planet is “nearing the point of no return” is not fake news. Nor is it fake news that some elected officials want to roll back human rights. For some of us, these are just political issues, but for many who are directly impacted, they can feel like existential threats.

And there is, of course, the pandemic. Many of us are starting to go back to work or school and attend in-person meetings, but it’s hard to shake off the impact of two years of near isolation. It’s hard for adults, but imagine how it feels for a young person who has spent perhaps 20% of their life dealing with the pandemic.

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Is the internet to blame?

This anxiety has increased just as many of us – including most children and teens – have been increasing our time online, so it’s natural to blame the internet and social media for the increase in depression, anxiety, anger and fear. The internet does play a role. It’s the place that many of us – especially young people – learn about the things that are bothering us. It’s also far more ubiquitous than it was before, especially for those who had to rely on it for school, work and even family events.

So, yes, there is a correlation between increased internet use and increased anxiety. But, as scientists have shown over and over again, correlation isn’t necessarily the same as causation. I heard about a situation where people seemed to be getting sick from eating ice cream, but it turned out that they were eating more ice cream because it was very hot and the sickness came from the heat, not the confectionary.

If you spend a lot of time on social media, you’re bound to see things that upset you. They might make you angry or they might make you sad. Seeing pictures of people who seem to have better lives than yours can be depressing.  It’s true you’re seeing that on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat or wherever, but the content is coming from people, and while it’s possible the service may be using algorithms to promote and amplify it, you would have a similar reaction if you saw it in any other venue or heard about it on a phone call.

This is not to suggest that social media and other tech companies are completely blameless or don’t have a responsibility to help their users cope with mental health issues that are at least correlated if not caused by the use of their products. Those algorithms are a factor, and it’s undeniable that social media companies work hard to make their products as attractive and appealing as possible.

Like chocolate

Nearly all companies try to make their products appealing. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I would argue that social media is more like chocolate than tobacco, which is harmful even in small quantities.

Chocolate companies are in the business of selling products that contain fat and sugar, which are known to be harmful if consumed in large quantities. And there are some people who will get sick if they eat any amount of chocolate. But that hasn’t stopped me from eating small amounts of chocolate almost every day  I enjoy it, it makes me feel good and as long as I eat it in moderation and balance it with other nutrients and exercise, it doesn’t seem to be doing me any harm, though there are times when I’ve eaten too much chocolate and regretted it.

Excessive use of social media is bad for nearly everyone, and those with mental health issues or other vulnerabilities are better off avoiding it completely. And just as there are some people who don’t like chocolate, there are those who don’t like social media.

Not everyone has the same experience on social media

The other thing about social media is that it’s not monolithic. As much as I complain about algorithms, they are, to a certain extent, protective. There is hate speech and toxicity on social media, but I rarely see it because my feed and my overall experience is reflective of my interests and the people I choose to follow or interact with. The bad part of that is that I feel I’m in an echo-chamber surrounded by like-minded folks, depriving me of a diversity of thought. The good part is that nearly everyone I interact with is well-behaved and considerate. I’ve gone out of my way to follow people on Twitter with very different political views, but unless I take a deep dive in their direction, I rarely come across destructive trolls.

The jury is out

I haven’t even bothered using this column to talk about all the positive aspects of social media, including how it can help break down isolation, increase positive activism and help people cope with stress, anxiety and depression, but it’s worth pointing out that “the jury is still out” when it comes to understanding the balance between its benefits and harms. What I do know is that it can be harmful, just like any technology, including the wheel, fire, cars and kitchen knives. I also know that industry has a responsibility to mitigate harm and governments should be looking for sensible regulations just as they do with food, pharmaceuticals, vehicles and commerce. We can’t leave the solutions to private companies, but we must also avoid regulations with unintended consequences that may be worse than the problems they try to solve. It’s complicated and hard, but it’s worth the effort.

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