Social Media Isn’t the Problem… We Are

Criticism One: Social Media Harms Mental Health

It is true that over the past two decades, we have seen a worrying increase in rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety, especially in young people. But it’s not clear that social media is the cause.

A lot of scary research on social media usage is correlational research. That means researchers simply look at how much time people spend on social media, then they look at whether those people are anxious and/or depressed. They then look to see if the same people who are doomscrolling Facebook all day are the people who are anxious and depressed. Most results have found that they are.

For example, a 2018 study found a correlation between social media screen time and increases in depressive symptoms and suicide attempts.2 This is just one of many correlational studies finding the same result: lots of social media usage = lots of depressed teenagers.

Sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it?

The problem with studies like this is that it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Is it that social media causes kids to feel more depressed? Or is it that really depressed kids are more likely to use social media?

This is the limit of correlational studies. They simply show you that two things are occurring at the same time. They don’t tell you if those two things are related or not. For example, the divorce rate in the state of Maine is highly correlated with the consumption of margarine. But obviously, nobody thinks that margarine is the leading cause of divorce.

The truth is, correlational studies kind of suck. They are really basic and the results aren’t that useful. So why do people do them?

Well, people do them because they’re easy. It’s very easy to round up a few hundred kids, ask them how much they use social media, then ask them if they feel anxious or depressed, and create a spreadsheet. It’s much, much harder to round up thousands of kids, track them over the course of a decade and calculate how any shifts or changes in their social media usage actually affect their mental health over the years. That would require a lot of time and money and researchers. But that’s also how you would actually know if social media causes mental health problems.

Well, researchers with a lot of time and money have run those longitudinal studies, and the results are in:

  • Researchers at Brigham Young University tracked the social media usage and mental health of 500 subjects, between ages 13 and 20, from 2009 to 2017. Over half of the subjects used social media every day during that period. Many of them used it for at least an hour each day. After eight years, the researchers found no connection between depression/anxiety and social media use.3
  • A similar study was done in Finland, this time tracking 2,891 adolescents between 2014 and 2020. Again, they found no causal link between social media usage and symptoms of depression/anxiety.4
  • Another version of this study was done with 600 high school and college students in Canada. This one also found that social media usage did not predict depressive symptoms.5

But what about FOMO? What about Facebook-stalking? What about the envy of seeing how awesome your friends’ lives are?

A German study following 514 people for over a year found that the more depressed or anxious the social media user, the more likely they were to “stalk” other users or indulge in envy of other people’s lives. The same Canadian study mentioned above also found that depressive symptoms in girls predicted their social media usage. Therefore, the researchers are leaning towards the conclusion that it’s anxiety and depression that drives us to use social media in all the horrible ways we use it—not the other way around.6

Basically: the fucking egg came first. Anxiety/depression leads to greater amounts of envious and voyeuristic social media usage. The more eggs you’ve got rattling around in your head, the more likely you are to sit there and gawk at the latest, greatest narcissistic fuckwit posting their beach selfies on your feed.

Then, there’s the studies you never hear about. Like the one from 2012 that found posting status updates on Facebook reduces feelings of loneliness.7 Or the one from earlier this year that found activity on Twitter can potentially increase happiness.8 Or this one that found that active social media use actually decreases symptoms of depression and anxiety.9

Those of us who were around in 2004 can remember why social media was such a big deal in the first place—it connected you to everybody in your life in a way that was simply impossible in the before-times. And those initial benefits of social media are so immediate and obvious that we’ve likely become inured to them and take them for granted.

Especially because in the last ten years, politics has gotten in the way…

Criticism Two: Social Media Causes Political Extremism or Radicalization

The past decade has seen a rise in populist movements around the world. It’s also seen larger and more frequent public protests, mainstream adoption of conspiracy theories and really fucking obnoxious Twitter arguments. Considering so much political discourse occurs on social media, it’s logical to assume that social media might be the cause of all our troubles.

But three facts make it unlikely that social media is the culprit:

    1. Studies show that political polarization has increased most among the older generations who use social media the least. Younger generations who are more active on social media tend to have more moderate views.10
    2. Polarization has been widening in the United States and many other countries since the 1970s, long before the advent of the internet.11
    3. Polarization has not occurred universally around the world. In fact, some countries are experiencing less polarization than in previous decades.12

There are plenty of explanations for growing political polarization and populism that don’t involve social media. Growing income inequality is the most obvious explanation. Divergences in educational attainment in different age demographics. Growing immigrant populations and multiculturalism. Globalization and stagnant wages. And so on and so forth.

But what about the disinformation and conspiracy theories?

Well, research shows that despite the proliferation of “fake news,” most people don’t fall for it. In fact, most fake news gets shared not because people think it’s true, but simply because it wins them cool points with their social media friends.13

(Yeah… people suck.)

Not only that, research shows that most fake news doesn’t originate on social media, it actually originates on televised news.14

Which actually makes sense. Fake news is hardly anything new. Back in the 18th and 19th century, people would anonymously publish newspapers and pamphlets spreading horrible rumors about their political opponents. In the 1790s, one newspaper, secretly financed by Thomas Jefferson, wrote slanderous op-eds claiming that George Washington was going to declare himself king of the new republic. During the Civil War, southern newspapers claimed that Abraham Lincoln was not only going to abolish slavery, but force whites and blacks to intermarry.

As for political extremists, you don’t have to read much history to discover that political extremists are the rule, not the exception. How quickly we forget the “Red Scare” McCarthyism in the 1950s, or the bombings by left-wing revolutionaries that ravaged government buildings and universities in the 1970s, or the socialists who were imprisoned for their beliefs in the 1910s.

None of this shit is new.

Criticism Three: Big Tech Companies Are Profiting Off the Mayhem

From soccer moms to politicians to Cardi B, the Big Tech companies of Silicon Valley have become everybody’s favorite punching bag. Mark Zuckerberg has been called in front of Congress four times in the past couple of years to answer for… well, I’m still not sure exactly what. Top executives from Twitter, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have similarly been called to Washington to be burned at the proverbial stake for the public’s satisfaction.

The assumption here is that social media is destroying the fabric of society, and Big Tech is gleefully cashing in on it.

But social media is not destroying society, and even if it was, Big Tech is not fanning the flames. They’re actually spending a lot of money trying to put it out.

These companies have spent billions in efforts to fight back against disinformation and conspiracy theories. A recent study to see if Google’s algorithm promoted extremist alt-right content actually found the opposite: the YouTube algorithm seemed to go out of its way to promote mainstream, established news sites far more often than its fringe looney figures.15

Similarly, last year Facebook banned tens of thousands of conspiracy theorist and terrorist groups. This has been part of their ongoing campaign to clean up their platform. They’ve hired over 10,000 new employees in the past two years just to review content on the site for disinformation and violence. They’ve also become absolutely draconian in banning ad accounts in the last year. Leading up to the election, hundreds, if not thousands, of legitimate businesses saw their ad accounts shut down with no explanation.

Not only is Facebook not making a profit off disinformation, they are undoubtedly losing lots of money trying to clean it up. Whether you agree with their policies or editorial decisions, you can’t argue that they’re standing by doing nothing.