The advent of social networks like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and other increased the connection and interaction between people on a planetary scale. It is estimated that about 2.5 billion people use these networks, according to a study conducted by the Statistics Group. Technology has undoubtedly caused a major disruption in the way we relate to others, as well as in our way of life. It all seems very good, but not really. The economist and entrepreneur with a focus on innovation and disruptive technologies, Arie Halpern draws attention to a phenomenon that has been pointed out by technological scholars: networks act as stimulants on the brain and can be addictive. Moreover, an excessive interaction can affect our mental health.
A recent research held in the United Kingdom by the Royal Society for Public Health in partnership with the Young Health Movement concluded that social networks can be considered more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes. The research has also found that this addiction affects mainly adolescents and young adults. The 1500 participants interviewed for the study are between 14 and 24 years old, representing the portion of the population who most uses social networks. In this population group, the rates of anxiety and depression increased by 70% over the last 25 years. The researchers asked participants to examine five social networks – Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat – and identify those who had greater negative impact on them. Instagram had the worst evaluation, being considered the most harmful of the five networks for making users feel anxious, depressed and lonely. YouTube was considered to be the most beneficial for bringing reliable information, allowing the participants’ self-expression and giving emotional support to users.
In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, supports the idea that society should require these companies to take measures to minimize the negative impact on the users’ mental health. For her, the networks should create alerts to warn users about the length of time online, or about digitally manipulated photos they may come across, as these create a false perception of the human body. “The tools and resources available to technology companies should also be used to prevent the side effects of the services and products they provide to the public,” says Halpern.
The subject was also discussed in a research conducted in the United States in 2014 intending to verify the relationship between symptoms such as depression and anxiety and the use of different social networks. The effects of 11 different networks–Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Reddit, Pinterest, LinkedIn, YouTube, Google Plus, Tumblr, and Vine–on people aged 19 to 32 years old were analyzed. It was found that those who used seven or more different platforms had a triple chance to show symptoms of depression or anxiety.
From these studies, one should not conclude that social networks are the villains of the contemporary world. As explained by Brian Primack, director of the Center for Research on Media, Technology, and Health of the University of Pittsburgh, the research does not establish a cause-and-effect relationship. “In any case, it is necessary to deepen the studies to better understand the relationship between these two phenomena”, says Halpern. In addition, he says, it is important to educate the children and young people preparing them to deal with these platforms, both to get the best out of them and to be guarded against the risks they pose.