The debate around the impact of social media on mental health is not new, but the conversation has regained the world’s attention in light of reports this fall that suggest Facebook was well aware of the toxic consequences of its adolescent mental health platforms.
While this data – and the knowledge that Facebook has ignored these concerns – is troubling, understanding the impact of social media on mental health is not so straightforward. In fact, there is a strong argument to be made that social media can provide safe and supportive spaces and connections for young people on the way to discover themselves and their identities.
These benefits are too often overlooked as the grim consequences of social media rage. The point is, today’s popular social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and more are designed with monetization as a top priority. Basically, these apps encourage overuse, as more hours of use on the app equals more advertising medium.
The tech industry has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to make room for platforms that don’t depend on ad dollars.
While some have responded to the latest backlash by stating that spaces like Instagram should be strictly for adults, I firmly believe in creating a beneficial social media environment for teens – one that helps them discover themselves. and to affirm who they are. ; one that allows them to freely explore their identity; and one who comforts them in times of darkness and helps them know that they are not alone.
I’m not sure this future can be cultivated through responsive functionality alone, but it’s possible that social media giants are teaming up with other organizations and nonprofits to make social media a safer place. for everyone.
Create space for ad-supported and nonprofit social media
While it’s hard to imagine a world where for-profit social media isn’t a monopoly, it doesn’t have to be. It may not be realistic to eliminate ad-supported social media apps entirely, but the tech industry has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to make room for platforms that don’t. not depend on advertising dollars.
If the number of views, clicks, and ads were secondary to people’s wants and needs, we could revolutionize how social media platforms work. Together, we could create communities that users can come to on their own terms, whether it’s to escape the pressure of other apps, connect with peers, or find a welcoming place where they can be themselves.
While a handful of ad-free social media spaces already exist – like Ello and TrevorSpace, The Trevor Project’s social networking site for LGBTQ + youth – they’re much smaller and have fewer features, and so may not be. not attract the large number of users who are used to the bells and whistles that come with social media apps like Instagram.
There also needs to be an online space for young people to explore their identities anonymously, which is nearly impossible when social media companies prioritize advertising support over mental health and wellness. of their users. Advertisers want to know exactly who is spending time on social media so they can target users based on their age, gender, behavior and identity. This becomes especially problematic for young users who wish to use social media as a vehicle to find out who they are but cannot do it quietly.
In order to overcome this, the industry as a whole needs to invest more in social media spaces where the goal is not for profit. Over the past few years, tech giants have made incredible strides in product innovation, which could be applied to other sites providing users with a safe place to express themselves and find supportive communities.
There’s a time and place for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and other ad-supported apps, but there’s also a clear need and want for online spaces that aren’t driven by revenue. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and we can work together to make room for both.
With TrevorSpace, for example, we’ve invested in research to better understand the wants and needs of our users, without the added pressure of meeting specific revenue goals. Through this research, we’ve learned that our users are turning to the internet to explore their identity and appreciate having a safe space in which to express themselves.
How about we use AI for good?
Beyond investing in more nonprofit social media platforms, tech companies also have the opportunity to apply their cutting edge AI developments to improve user experience on social media and mitigate some mental health stressors caused by spending too much time online.
Social media sites are currently using machine learning to inform algorithms that encourage people to spend more time online, but the possibilities extend far beyond that. We know that technology has the power to support people’s mental health instead of exacerbating mental illness, so what if we use AI to give users new control over social media?
Imagine if AI could help people find what they really need at any given time – like guiding users to content that makes them laugh when they want to laugh or cry when they want to cry, facilitate connections between users like-minded people that build positive relationships, or suggest resources that give them skills or knowledge that positively impact their lives.
The majority of social media applications today use AI to determine our feeds, our “for you” pages and our calendars for us. However, if we instead used AI to let people guide their own journeys on social media, we could foster a fundamentally different emotional experience – one that would meet their wants and needs instead of just monopolizing their time and attention. .
It sounds like a no-brainer, and some may even believe it’s happening already. However, as recently reinforced by the testimony of former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen, this just isn’t how the content we see is being curated in the current hands of social media leaders. This must change.
Through unprecedented innovation and research in social media, we have the technology to create sites that support our well-being; it’s just a matter of investing time and resources in their development and creating space for nonprofit apps to coexist with major ad-supported apps.
Going forward, I see the potential for social media companies to partner with nonprofits to develop AI that gives users control over what content they see and how they interact with it. this one, but it would take a lot of time, investment and collaboration on both sides. Social media giants would also have to agree to make room for much-needed alternative apps in space.
Making social media safer and healthier for all is a goal that many nonprofits, including The Trevor Project, are dedicated to achieving, and we would greatly benefit from the help of social media companies to achieve this. .