The debate around the impact of social media on mental health is not new, but the conversation has captured the world’s attention in light of reports this fall that suggest Facebook was well aware of the toxic mental health consequences of its platforms for teens.
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 case to be made that social media can provide safe and affirming spaces and connections for young people on the journey to discover themselves and their identities.
These benefits are too often pushed aside as the grim consequences of social media rage on. The thing is, today’s popular social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and many more are designed with monetization as the top priority. At their core, these apps encourage excessive usage, as more hours of usage on the app equals more advertising media.
The tech industry has an opportunity — and a responsibility — to make room for platforms that aren’t reliant on ad dollars.
While some reacted to the latest backlash by saying spaces like Instagram should be strictly for adults only, I strongly believe that it is possible to create a beneficial social media environment for adolescents, an environment that helps them discover themselves and 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 they are not alone.
I’m not sure that future can be cultivated by responsive features on their own, but it is possible that the social media giants will join forces with other organizations and nonprofits to make social media a safer place for everyone.
Create space for ad-supported and non-profit 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 completely eliminate ad-supported social media apps, but the tech industry has an opportunity – and a responsibility – to make room for platforms that don’t depend on advertising dollars.
If the number of views, clicks and ads were secondary to people’s wants and needs, we could revolutionize the way social media platforms work. Together, we could create communities that users can access on their own terms, whether to escape pressure from other apps, connect with peers, or find a place where they can be themselves.
Although there are already a handful of ad-free social media spaces, such as Hello and TrevorSpace, the Trevor Project’s social networking site for LGBTQ+ youth — they’re much smaller and have fewer features, so may not appeal to the large number of users accustomed to the bells and whistles that come with social media apps like Instagram.
There must also be a space online for young people to explore their identities anonymously, which is nearly impossible when social media companies prioritize advertising over the mental health and well-being 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 want to use social media as a way to find out who they are, but cannot do so discreetly.
In order to overcome this, the industry as a whole needs to invest more in social media spaces whose purpose is not profit. Over the past few years, tech giants have made incredible strides in product innovation that could be applied to other sites that give users a safe place to express themselves and find communities of support.
There’s a time and a place for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other ad-supported apps, but there’s also a clear need and desire 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 our users’ wants and needs, without the added pressure of meeting specific revenue goals. Through this research, we learned that our users turn to the internet to explore their identity and the value of having a safe space where they can express themselves.
What if we used AI for good?
In addition to investing in more nonprofit social media platforms, technology companies also have the opportunity to apply their cutting-edge AI developments to improve user experience on social media and mitigate some of the drivers of mental health stress 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 its possibilities extend far beyond that. We know technology has the power to support people’s mental health instead of exacerbating mental illness, so what if we used 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 apps today use AI to determine our feeds, “for you” pages, and timelines for us. However, if we instead used AI to let people guide their own social media journeys, we could foster a fundamentally different emotional experience – one that catered to their wants and needs instead of just monopolizing their time and their attention.
It seems like a no-brainer, and some may even believe it is already happening. However, as recently confirmed by the testimony of Frances Haugen, former Facebook product manager, it is just not how the content we see is curated in the current hands of social media leaders. This must change.
Thanks to 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 developing them and creating space for non-profit apps to co-exist with mainstream ad-supported apps.
Looking ahead, 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. him, but it would take a lot of time, investment and collaboration from both parties. It would also require the social media giants to agree to make room for much-needed alternative apps in the space.
Making social media safer and healthier for everyone 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.