The time between Christmas and new-year is traditionally a time of reflection for me. What have we done in the last year, where do we want to go, and how do we want to get there? 2019 has been a though year with lots of self-reflection overall, and my results are rather of philosophical nature than productive output.
I have written this essay back in June, and think now might be a good moment to publish. This essay has mainly been based on my personal experience. If you happen to know more related research which may back some claims, or maybe invalidate them, I would love to hear about it!
Every now and then there are people appearing into the spotlights claiming social media is the source of many problems which have appeared over the last (few) decennia. While most of us certainly have heard stories about how social media is changing society - and it certainly is -, I personally do not believe it is the root cause why society is changing. Google's autocomplete engine is able to summarize the claims about social media quite neatly. Social media arguably causes a lot of things, but most of these are personal, and more importantly, negative and urgent issues.
How is it that a social media platform could potentially cause isolation or loneliness, which are essentially the very things one would try to avoid by being 'social'. Why is it that social media is linked with elevated depression rates, anxiety and stress?
Having gone through a major depressive episode, followed by a full-blown burn-out I for sure had to change the way I lived. I had to question everything I have ever known, and I needed to get everything back on track bit by bit. And while the whole experience was all but fun, it was healthy. The key take-aways I learned during this episode:
- However depressed you are, it might be difficult to recognize you are in fact, depressed. Taking action requires a lot of energy one could easily lack during such period in life. It's easier to brush it off and think it'll go away automatically.
- A burn-out is mostly not work related. While work may be a big catalyst in this whole process due to the amount of time we're spending in the workplace, it's mostly not related to work, even if it seems like it is.
- Life is one big story where all parts are connected with each other. When you think your life has multiple separate sections which are not connected with each other, you are still missing something.
- Everyone is hurt, everyone has their own package of shit, and life sucks.
I hope these points have set the stage for the rest of this document.
The incentive for social media platforms
While visiting the Internet Governance Forum 2018 in Paris I attended a session which was called "Technology, Suicide, and the Mental Health of Youth". During this session the primary question the panellists tried to answer was about how their users with mental health issues could be helped.
The primary take-aways from this:
- Users with so called "poor mental health" can already be flagged and subtly pushed towards professional health services.
- The main incentive big platforms try to tackle this issue is bad media attention.
While this session was not about ones physical health, you could ask the question why social media platforms are not incentivizing proper physical health. And although this could or would lead to a situation in which a social media platform tries to sneak into all aspects of our lives, it sparks an interesting question: why focus on mental health, and not on physical health, or both?
The content we share one those platforms are mostly results of our intellect. Whether we are writing about our day, interests, or we are sharing our favourite memes. While it is certainly possibly to share your physical achievements, like the route you just ran, it's not the main content which is shared. In this way it's incredibly easy for a platform to analyse your mood. They already have this data, and you are probably sharing more information than you realize. The way you write tells something about who you are (see https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/video/telling-stories-analyzing-text-to-understand-personality-social-behavior-and-narratives/?OCID=msr_tellingstories_tw#!speakers). The way you look can tell from which socio-economic climate you came, and your browsing habits tell something about your interests and schedule at the same time. Whether you like it or not.
All in all we can assume the big social media platform know enough about you to identify both your emotional state as well as your physical state. So while they are tagging you for poor mental health, and are trying to push you to professional help, can't they do the same for your physical health?
Yeah, but probably not. Imagine a world where the platform you're browsing on shows you a message after minutes, or hours, reminding you to go for a walk, to go outside, and to enjoy quality human interaction. And while there could be a plethora of reasons this isn't implemented, there is one reason which stands out, and that is that these platforms have no incentive at all to push you out.
Social media platforms are essentially built on a glitch which makes it possible to transform attention into money; advertisements. And while advertisements already exist for a long time, think about those old-school physical news-papers, they have become more and more invasive over the last few years, fuelled by the dynamic nature of the world wide web. Just when you're reading an article, a pop-up shows up, and distracts you from the thing you were doing. Advertisements cannot be flashy enough, literally designed to hijack your attention. Designed to optimize the conversion rate for the company publishing them. Talk about attention whores. And this while advertisements are arguably effective. I think the annoying nature of advertisements should be reason enough to install an ad-blocker just to get rid of them. Besides that I also dislike the idea to be slowly but surely manipulated into buying a product, or to at least checking it out. I prefer to hear from great products organically, because of their quality, or because people are enthusiastic about it. Not because the company decided I fit in their intended market and tries to show me some (highly) targeted ads.
But social media platforms live of advertisements as it's one of their only sources of income. Acting as the middle man between the advertiser and the target audience, social media platforms have all the reasons to incentivize users to stay on their platforms as long as possible, indirectly becoming the attention whores advertisers want them to become. This practice has become evident as being "industry standard" whereas companies are measuring the session duration and they are trying to get that metric as big as possible. Having the goal to lengthen the average session duration does as much to the quality of a product as trying to make the session duration as short as possible. In this regard I believe that a high quality product tries to help their users as fast as possible, and no second longer. Session duration is highly specific to the use case, and should only be used as a metric which can be used to identify possible problems. Not as a goal on itself. A short user session can be the result of a needlessly complex user-interface as much as a relatively long session.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to advertisements. We're not even talking about behavioural tracking and cross-linking data sources. Privacy is no more, and we're all being tricked into sharing the details of our lives with advertisers, who are incentivized by money.
Are we all trading our mental well-being for having the ability to go on a social media platform? Are social media platforms trying to earn money, at the cost of the (mental) wellbeing of it's users?
A global outcry for attention?
The life of an imposter
I have difficulty accepting that social media has grown so big due to it's viral nature alone. It's viral nature has led to growth, sure thing, but please take a moment to think about the people you know. It might seem like the people who lead the greatest lives have a small social media footprint. How come? Don't they have the time to maintain their profiles? Are they too busy living life? Or is it that they just do not care enough about the validation from others? The contrary is even more visible. The people with seemingly the busiest lives on social media, who travel the most, and look like they have fun all the time, usually lead the most empty lives of all. For sure, the use of 'empty' is entirely subjective here, and those people themselves will usually maintain that their life is great.
However over the last few years I have get to know some of these people a little better. I have been reflecting on my own life, and I have been observing how other people live their lives, and the only conclusion I was able to make is that the people who try to grab most attention on social media, have the biggest traumas to process. While slightly paradoxal, it makes perfect sense when you think about their life as one big attempt to shield themselves from the psychological pain associated with their lives back at home, which they are (sometimes literally) running away from.
I have seen friends who had to live so incredibly intense in order to run away from their past that they derailed, and lost their friends in the process.
I have seen myself, running around from one event to another, trying to numb my mind down.
The Tinder Effect
In this regard is Tinder one of the most interesting social media platforms to observe this effect on. The user base (and I was among those) can be summarized by separating them into three groups:
- The so called 'fuck boys'; these are the people mainly looking for one night stands.
- People who are primarily looking for a chat.
- People who are looking for a serious relationship
While I do not think there needs to be a stigma on online dating at all, I think it is somewhat important to realize what kind of pool one is fishing in. The common denominator between these groups is that all these people are on Tinder for one of several reasons which are all closely related. Whether it's loneliness, depression, a requirement for acknowledgement or just the need for a little attention, they all can be summarized (in my humble opinion) by forms of (unresolved) trauma.
Although incredibly difficult, I would love to see some serious research to be done on the mental health of the user-base of Tinder to back up (or invalidate) my anecdotal evidence.
Contrary, people who know who they are, and have a firm grasp about their own personal history (identity) are more confident about themselves and thus are they more easily attracting like minded people. These people simply do not have the need to be on Tinder in order to be able to meet new people.
Of course this is all incredibly simplified and the real world is more complex than this. The world has also changed. One of the most striking examples showing this is a comparison about how new people were met back then and now. Back in the days one would meet new people by occasionally bumping into them while going your way. Over weeks or even months you would learn to recognize people you meet on the street every so often. You'd start greeting each other which continues with a little chit-chat whenever there's the odd possibility. It's an incredibly dynamic process, randomly determining the persons you meet by matching up one anothers schedule. This methods also still applies these days, although it seems less important now. The good thing about this however is that you will have at least something obvious in common with the person you meet. Which does not necessarily needs to be the case with online dating at all.
From online dating to trauma. Quite a big leap, isn't it? But what drives us to share details of our private lives on the internet, with lots of people we don't know nor care, and the few people who care, but will know what's keeping you busy either way?
Evidence points to statistics which tell that the presence of narcissistic personality traits has been rising about as fast as obesity since the 80's (https://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1416575987/understandi0d-20). Another study finds that people in which these narcissistic personality traits manifest themselves are more likely to have a big network on Facebook (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120319194046.htm). This growth which has been ongoing since the 80's suggests that social networks are not the reason for these problems, but merely just a symptom. In this regard social media platforms just satisfy in a demand.
Other articles (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/compassion-matters/201211/is-social-media-blame-the-rise-in-narcissism) suggest that narcissism is slightly related to a distorted self esteem. While this has definitely a source of truth, I think the article linked before misses a few crucial points.
Alice Miller makes an interesting case for how closely related narcissism and depression actually are to each other in her book "The Drama of the Gifted Child". They both are rooted in self-deception, and manifest themselves because the person in question has to keep lying to themselves in order to maintain their 'perception of oneself' as it has grown over the years. This does not necessarily mean that this view matches with the (usually harsh) reality from which these persons want to shield themselves. This self-deception, when maintained, can even result into borderline, to indicate what we are actually dealing with.
But why do we start to deceive ourselves? The aforementioned book starts out with this topic, appropriately called "Everything rather than the truth" (translated from the Dutch translation). The core idea is that we all have a psychological self-defence mechanism used to protect our feelings which uses deception techniques in order to prevent us from dealing with an unbearable amount of emotional pain. This mechanism is especially effective in our youths, when our emotional expression has not yet fully developed. Anyone thinking that slapping is a perfectly fine pedagogical tool to get kids back on track should read this book to get to know the devastating results to one's psyche.
Physical harm however is not the only trauma one can endure. Most of the trauma this book focusses on is not physically related, but centers around trauma received on an emotional level. One of the most prominent reasons for this is lack of the attention one needs in their childhood. Children, acting like the smart humans they actually are, start to imitate their parents behaviour in order to impress their parents and get their much needed attention another way. However, lack of true, well meaned attention from a parent will only reinforce this behaviour.
To visually illustrate what happens next I share the example of a guy who triumphantly told me that girls like confident people, and that he could score a different girl every night on Tinder. At the same time however he was in divorce with his wife, and left his children with their mother. While he factually knew he was left by his own father, he did not realize that he was imitating his fathers behaviour, and as a side effect, left his children feeling the same way he felt once as a kid. After all, if there is one thing which Tinder users could mostly have in common; it could be emotional trauma they were not yet able to process.
Kids will unconsciously follow the examples parents set for them. However much well meaned advice you give your kids, they will still follow the example you set for them. One way to figure out the things which hurt you most as a kid is to ask yourself the question; "What would I do different for my own kids compared to my own youth?".
Running away for oneself
The moment the psychological trauma due to lack of attention is not acknowledged, and instead is filled or negated with a false sense of self, one would keep running around looking for this attention until they get it from the persons who inflicted this emotional damage, or until they acknowledge their own feelings.
Society has been changing however. We are all being encouraged to work more, and people who are not yet working, are encouraged to find a job in order to be a valuable asset to the economy. In a recent podcast by BNR about working part-time (in Dutch; https://www.bnr.nl/podcast/ask-me-anything/10338527/deeltijd-werken), people - in this case especially woman - who were not working, were referred to as being a loss to the economy, which in my personal opinion, is absolutely a respectless way to speak about human beings. There is so much more to humans than the amount of added (monetary) value they can bring to society.
This push to work however has the negative and often overlooked side effect that children will get less and less attention from their primary caregivers. While it is totally possible to come home and play with your kids, work is often hectic and tiring, and ones mind usually does not care about playing with kids after coming home. A further push to get more people into the economy has happened in the Netherlands by incentivizing day-care, further reducing the valuable attention kids would otherwise require to get from their parents, and being replaced by surrogates. In this regard I can only predict that the, already rising, depression rates amongst youth, will only rise further in the years to come, until this problem has been acknowledged.
With this background it can only be reasonable that young people turn to social media in order to get a little bit of attention. They are all on a quest for attention, and will do so until they have found what they are looking for, or acknowledge their hurt self.
Social media platforms are here to stay. However, in its current form the architecture is set up in such way that people with specific mental health issues might be especially vulnerable to manipulation on these platforms via the means of advertisements. While the discussion can be lead towards finding a way to protect these people, I would consider it more important to fundamentally change the way we talk about mental health as society in a whole in order to prevent these mental health issues in the first place.
The impact of poor mental health seem to be gigantic. The WMO suggests that for every $1 which is invested in the treatment of common mental health issues, it is possible to get a return of $4 by improved health and productivity (https://www.who.int/mental_health/in_the_workplace/en/).
Suggesting that anxiety and depression related disorders cost the global economy roughly US$1 trillion in lost productivity each year shows the sheer size of the problem we are dealing with. There are not nearly enough mental health professionals by far to help all the people dealing with mental health issues.
I would encourage everyone to be willing to offer a listening ear to someone wanting to talk about life. This habit can make a gigantic difference for people dealing with mental health issues, as big as the difference between life and death.
Even people who suffer from the borderline personality disorder can be helped by someone who's listening to their story. Estimated is that roughly 80% of borderline patients are dealing with so called 'complex trauma'. Of the other 20% it's possible that borderline either occurs naturally, or that it is rooted in trauma which is so complex, or so well hidden that the cause for it cannot be found in ones life-time. Friends and family can make a big difference here as these are the very people who know most about a persons life, as opposed to a therapist. Especially the people close by to a person with trauma related issues are suited to help the person suffering by helping them process this trauma. Although difficult for both parties, it is possible to make a remarkable difference in ones life.
After all, psychological well-being is our shared responsibility.