As we reflect upon the evidence that whistleblower Frances Haugen gave to parliament, we should not only look at the evidence of harm that social media is introducing into our society in general; we must also focus on the more intensive effect it has on young people, and create policies with this issue explicitly in mind.
Facebook is in the news again, with allegations about the harmful effects of social media. This is no surprise to teachers and psychologists; many of them will have initially contemplated this issue with respect to effects emergent in young people. For this reason, it became an area in which I carried out research that was subsequently disseminated in various blogs, chapters and articles.
One of the first, which I published four and a half years ago, explores the surveillance aspect of social media, quoting Tim Rayner: “There are no guards and no prisoners in Facebook’s virtual Panopticon. We are both guards and prisoners, watching and implicitly judging one another.”
Proceed with caution: people under construction
Young people currently in their early to mid-twenties are the first generation to have, in effect, grown up online. Obviously, interaction within such environments is different from playing with other children in a local neighbourhood or playground, and by the second decade of the 2000s, concerns were being raised about the impact of social media on young people’s mental health. Findings were indicating a rise in narcissism, anxiety, and depression, alongside a dearth of physical activity correlated with increasing rates of obesity and general ‘sluggishness’. A body of research and associated commentary began to appear which reflected upon potential impacts on wellbeing, particularly amongst young women.
Research into effects of social media on young women and gamers
Over the late 2010s, I carried out a study in which I asked young women in their early twenties to look back on their teenage years on social media. They reported feeling ‘wasted’ in comparison to the attractiveness and achievements of celebrities, which led to desperate editing of ‘selfie’ photographs to enhance their online profiles. Several commented that it was only a few years later that they realised this process fed into a type of ‘mutually assured destruction’ as the edited photographs of their friends chipped away at their own self-esteem. This is an issue that has been building since the beginning of social media.
They reminisced on the ongoing sniping and bullying emergent from everyone’s unhappiness, alongside a temptation to over-share private information with online acquaintances they considered friends, until a ‘pile-on’ indicated otherwise. A surprising proportion of them were in favour of preventing under 18s using social media at all.
Gaming is another online arena that is well frequented by teenagers. It, too, is currently being enthusiastically researched, with more complex data emerging. While there are psychological findings that indicate some online games may enhance social and cognitive skills in their players, there is also some worrying neurophysiological evidence that indicates frequent playing of online war games dials down the limbic brain activity normally triggered by distressing visual information, therefore dulling normal emotional responses to the suffering of others.
Becoming a neuronal adult: adolescents are ‘under construction’
So why the increased concern about teenagers in particular?
The answer lies in recent scientific advances that describe the biological basis of teenage developmental vulnerability. We now know that human beings are not fully neuronally adult until their mid-twenties. Recent findings in neuropsychology indicate fragile ‘under construction’ emotions during adolescence whilst the brain undertakes its final major construction project in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that mediates adult social behaviour.
These changes, turned on by the hormone surges of puberty, are behaviourally observed as increased self-consciousness, reduced sensitivity to the feelings of others and increased tendencies towards risky behaviour in the pursuit of peer admiration; all qualities that will be familiar to those who parent and/or teach teenagers.
Adolescents are therefore far more vulnerable than adults to being deeply influenced by the communications and images they access online. The finding that “64% of all extremist group joins are due to [Facebook’s algorithm-driven] recommendation tools”, is just one sobering statistic to ponder.
The bio-neuronal vulnerability of teenagers provides a clear indication towards why social media obsession in this stage of development may lead to increased rates of self-harm, mental breakdown and suicide. These issues were becoming evident before the pandemic, which has had the effect of pushing far more human interaction onto social media, threatening a ‘perfect storm’. Potential harm that may result from gaming is not quite as clear cut, but it is still an issue for further investigation, in particular which activities may be more or less positive for mental health.
The online safety bill: a chance to safeguard young people from the social media bear pit
Mental health can be impacted by a multitude of factors. Examples mentioned by The Lancet are increasing academic pressures, and broader concerns about job prospects, financial security, and global politics. Further factors highlighted are social media and cyberbullying, where it can now be convincingly evidenced that immersing a socially and emotionally vulnerable adolescent in the bear pit of social media is not the most sensible thing for a society to do.
In spring 2017, I commented “over the past decade, young people have been recruited into a mass social experiment at a highly vulnerable stage of their development … this may have negative effects upon lifelong mental health, potentially creating an insidious anxiety”.
Four years and a half years later, in autumn 2021, Frances Haugen made this comment to parliament:
It is now surely past time for that experiment to cease.
MPs have tabled issues such as online pornography, terrorism, hate speech and toxic algorithms for discussion as they consider amendments to the online safety bill. All of these are important. But they must also include reference to the extreme vulnerability of young people in these discussions and explicitly include this consideration as they construct the final draft of the legislation.