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Social Media: How Much is Too Much?



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Social Media Landscape

In the modern world, social media is fast becoming a bane of our existence. Initially, it served as a way to connect with our friends and form online communities to share personal messages and information. However, today, it has evolved into an integral part of our lives, wielding widespread influence over our psyche. 

It all started with the popularity of Facebook, which was launched in 2004, followed by other platforms like Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitch, and now TikTok.  

According to a 2022 Pew Research Center online survey of 1,316 American teenagers aged 13 to 17 in 2022 by Pew Research Center, 67% of teens use TikTok, with 16% saying they use it almost constantly. Meanwhile, YouTube is the most common online platform among teens, with 95% reporting they have ever used the site. Other popular apps have been Instagram (62%) and Snapchat (59%), both growing since 2014-15 from 52% and 41% respectively. 

A majority of these teens also find it very hard to give up social media. The increasing usage of social media, especially among the younger generation, has been a grave cause of concern among parents and teachers. 

While social media usage has many benefits, it also has a serious negative impact on people. Besides addiction and the spread of misinformation, their obsessive usage can also lead to: 

  • Distraction
  • Loss of productivity
  • Sleep disruption
  • A skewed view of reality
  • Superficial connections
  • Social isolation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Exposure to predators
  • Cyberbullying

Given the dangers of social media, this week, boards at four major schools in Ontario, Canada, took social media giants to court. 

The Toronto District School Board, the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the Peel District School Board, and the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board are suing Meta Platforms Inc., the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, ByteDance Ltd. which owns TikTok, and Snapchat owner Snap Inc, with an attempt to hold them accountable and develop safer products. More schools are expected to join this movement in the near future.

Social Media Causing Mental Health Crisis

In four separate cases filed in Ontario's Superior Court of Justice, the schools' boards are alleging that these social media platforms are facilitating harassment, hate speech, and misinformation in addition to contributing to a mental health crisis and escalating physical violence and conflicts in schools.

According to the lawsuit, these social media platforms are carelessly designed for compulsive and prolonged use. It further claims that these platforms have rewired the way children learn, think, and behave, leading to an attention, learning, and mental health crisis. 

All the boards have come together to form a coalition, Schools for Social Media Change, and they claim that these companies “have acted in a high-handed, reckless, malicious, and reprehensible manner without due regard for the well-being of the student population.”

The online platforms further facilitate child sexual abuse and harassment to maximize their engagement, and unless forced by law enforcement, such harmful content is not removed. The boards then go on to allege that the use of “anonymous usernames” on social media is leading to the threats of bombs and shootings becoming more common.

All the while, teachers and schools are left to deal with the consequences, which is causing massive strains on the schools' finite resources, it added.

This lawsuit, as per the school boards, aims to get the “resources needed to support student programming and services and to respond to the school-based problems social media giants have caused.” 

In response, the boards took measures, including increased IT costs to investigate cyberbullying and other harmful behavior and proactive social media monitoring. Moreover, the schools are tasked with countering misinformation on these platforms and preventing students from adopting harmful ideologies. Resources are also being allocated towards the development of mental health programs and increasing personnel.

The boards also stated in their lawsuit that they must educate not just students but also parents about the potential dangers of social media by organizing presentations, hiring speakers, and other means.

As a result, the boards are seeking about $4.5 billion in damages for disruption to student learning and the education system and to address the impact on youth.

A Growing Focus on Youth's Social Addiction, Others Join In

This isn't the first time schools have taken such a step. Most recently, a US-based school in San Mateo County filed a lawsuit against TikTok, Snapchat, and YouTube, alleging that these platforms use AI to intentionally make them addictive and are “knowingly” creating a mental health crisis among students. 

Just last year, public schools in a Seattle district filed a lawsuit against the biggest social networks for “a youth mental health crisis.” They alleged that Alphabet, Meta, Snap, and ByteDance have purposefully designed and refined their platforms to exploit the “neurophysiology” of our youths' brains, who are now struggling with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicidal ideation.

The lawsuit stated that a vast majority (over 90%) of today's youth use social media, and one in five children now suffer from a mental health disorder.

While companies tend to use Section 230 of the Community Decency Act in their defense, which essentially says service providers are not to be treated as the speaker or publisher of the information provided by someone else, Schools argue that these social media platforms should be liable for their own conduct. The complaint said these platforms actually promote harmful content. 

Not just one or two but hundreds of school boards and some states, even in the US, have launched such lawsuits against social media companies. 

Late last year, more than 30 US attorneys general came together to file a federal lawsuit against Mark Zuckerberg's Meta, accusing the company of harmful actions against the youth. The lawsuit claims that manipulative features on the tech giant's social media platforms get children and teenagers addicted to them. 

Not only companies like Meta are to blame for the younger generations' record levels of poor mental health, but they are also profiting “from children's pain,” said New York Attorney General (NYAG) Letitia James at the time. They are seeking “injunctive and monetary relief” for the misconduct.

Safeguards Already in Place, argues Social Media Giants 

Social media companies, however, don't feel this way. They argue that they already have tools for age verification and supervision and also recommend regular breaks to their users through notifications. 

In response to Ontario school boards' lawsuits, a TikTok spokesperson pointed out its “industry-leading safeguards,” such as age restrictions, parental controls, and an automatic 60-minute screen time limit for users under 18. The spokesperson also emphasized that the company's team of safety professionals is continuously evaluating any insights and practices to support the well-being of teens. They added, “TikTok will continue working to keep our community safe.” 

Snapchat, on the other hand, notes that there are no public likes or comments, and it opens directly to a camera and not a content feed.

Meanwhile, at a separate news conference, Doug Ford, the Ontario Premier who's responsible for helping develop policies and set priorities, said he “disagrees” with the lawsuit given that they had banned phones from classrooms five years ago.

While some argue banning phones might be the answer, critics say it's just not a matter of a few hours. Also, making it forbidden may exacerbate the situation with children, who are more at risk, as they tend to gravitate toward the thrill of doing something forbidden. 

Ford then reprimanded the boards for spending resources on lawyer fees, saying:

“Let's focus on the kids, not about this other nonsense that they're looking to fight in court.”

Litigation costs, according to school boards, won't come from their school budget and “will be paid from damages awarded.”

Causation Does Not Mean Correlation

While schools, authorities, and concerned people point to studies showing that the growing usage of the internet and social media is the reason behind most of the youth's problems, researchers suggest that might not present the full picture. 

In an article published last week in Nature, Candice L. Odgers, an associate dean for research and a professor of psychological science and informatics at the University of California, contended that blaming social media might divert us from effectively addressing the real causes of the ongoing mental health crisis among young people. 

Commenting on “The Anxious Generation,” a book by Jonathan Haidt that covers the “great rewiring” of youth leading to an “epidemic of mental illness,” Odgers argued that “most data are correlative.”

While associations have been observed, they do not imply that the use of social media causes or predicts depression. Instead, these associations suggest that young people with pre-existing mental health issues might be using these platforms more often or in different ways from their healthy peers, she said.

Moreover, she also pointed out that an analysis conducted across over seventy-two countries, involving more than 940K individuals over a decade, demonstrates that there is no quantifiable or consistent connection between the introduction of online social platforms and people's well-being.

The study, published in Aug. 2023, stated that it found no evidence of social media's wide adoption around the world being correlated to widespread psychological harm. In fact, the study noted that the usage of the social networking platform Facebook projected positive experiences and life satisfaction positively and negative experiences negatively.

Additionally, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study, the largest long-term study of adolescent brain development in the US, found no proof of any extreme changes related to the use of digital technology. 

While Odgers acknowledged that our current understanding of the matter is by no means complete and requires more research, she said the answer to the complex problem of anxiety and depression is not as simple as social media. 

“The onset and development of mental disorders… are driven by a complex set of genetic and environmental factors.” 

– Odgers

She pointed out how, in the US, access to guns, exposure to violence, racism, sexism, the opioid epidemic, economic hardship, and social isolation have been cited as leading contributors by researchers to the rising suicide rates. Moreover, she noted that the current generation of adolescents has been raised in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession, with about one in six children living below the poverty line.

On top of that, while the youth is openly talking about the signs and struggles of their mental problems now more than ever, services available to address their needs are insufficient.

Although there is no evidence that social media rewires children's brains, Odgers emphasized that due to the considerable amount of time young people spend on these platforms, significant reforms are required. Additionally, she highlighted that “we have a generation in crisis,” underscoring the need for the best of science and evidence-based solutions to handle the situation better.

Solutions to Social Media Bombardment 

While organizations have built social media platforms that are negatively impacting us, several companies offer solutions to mitigate these problems effectively today. 

For instance, the latest parental control solutions offer advanced parental monitoring functions to manage social media usage, schedule downtime, and block specific apps. In fact, parents even get access to children's browsing history, receive alerts when they visit blocked sites and gain insightful reports that help them understand their behavior and have practical solutions. Additionally, there are apps designed to help users control their online presence and enhance privacy on social media platforms.  

The focus currently, however, is on two main approaches: a phone with minimal design and apps to set limits to prevent distractions.  

Minimalistic Design 

One of the ways the companies are addressing social media issues is by adopting minimalist design in their products, best exemplified by the Light Phone. This premium, minimal phone excludes social media, news, email, and even an internet browser to provide a ‘light' experience to its users, focused mainly on calling and texting. Additional features include a timer, calendar, music player, notes, alarm, and hotspot tethering. 

In addition to simple and limited features, its distinct electronic paper screen is limited to just black and white, which further simplifies and limits its functionality. 

Other similar options include Mudita Pure, a minimalist phone without social media and internet access, and Punkt MP02, another minimalist 4G mobile phone that connects with people.

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Setting Limits 

Another approach taken by companies aimed at reducing social media usage involves introducing apps that enable users to track their screen time. One such app, Moment, offers insights into how much time you have spent on your device and provides personalized to cultivate healthier digital habits. One Sec is another app designed to monitor your usage, limit your time on various apps, and allow you to set notifications to ensure you follow through.  

Other options available for you include Freedom, restricting access to things that cause you distractions on PC as well as phone, Forest App; setting a timer to stay off the phone, and if successful, a virtual tree grows which dies if distracted by social media, Flipd; temporarily locking phones with “downtime” periods to maintain focus, Siempo; minimizing distractions and prioritizing productivity, and StayFocusd; prevent access to various platforms with time limits for individual websites.

Concluding Thoughts

Social media has allowed us to connect across borders. However, it also presents significant challenges that cannot be overlooked, as it puts our youth, the future of our world, in danger. 

While stricter content-moderation policies are a constructive first step for parents and educators, technology firms must revisit & reform their platforms and algorithms, tackling the issue from its core. However, this will only be a start, as we need more information and research into the underlying cause of the mental health crisis. This approach will help us address this complex problem more effectively and provide more comprehensive support to our younger generation. 

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Gaurav started trading cryptocurrencies in 2017 and has fallen in love with the crypto space ever since. His interest in everything crypto turned him into a writer specializing in cryptocurrencies and blockchain. Soon he found himself working with crypto companies and media outlets. He is also a big-time Batman fan.