by Jeremy Grossman, PhD
Akin to the response to many new forms of communication media since antiquity, the assumption that, aside from some of the political and social movement upshots, social media is bad for people—both its forms and the specific architecture of its psychological effects—remains as axiomatic as it is relatively unproven. I am not an apologist for social media platforms. Nevertheless, given the long history of new forms of communication in society and the equally long pattern of blaming those new forms of communication for the imminent downfall of society, one hopes that we’ll someday move on from the question of not whether or how much social media is liquifying the brains and emotional well-being of the world’s population, particularly its youth. Instead of framing the question as one of valence and intensity, I think it’s worth piecing out this question a little more carefully, a few steps logically prior to those data points, and, in the end, to be more precise about when we’re describing sociological phenomena and when we’re genuinely concerned about the individual psychic life of social media users.
Witness, first, the rash of reporting on the effects of social media on students’ mental health. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in partnership with the American Psychological Association (APA) and others, produced a report this year that makes two important claims: first, that the amount of social media usage among kids has a direct relation to levels of depression, anxiety, and other negative mental health outcomes. Second, social media disrupts learning by encouraging strange and sometimes violent behavior like swatting (calling in false police reports on a specific location) and other pranks like slapping their teachers that have been laundered through the language of “challenges.” Keep your eye on that word. These are fair enough conjectures, even if the latter smacks of a false-cause fallacy (kids have routinely gotten up to some bad shit for a very long time without the need for TikTok to persuade them to) and the former fails to sort through how and whether social media usage is a cause, rather than an effect, of children who are struggling.
Then again: early last month, Royal Society Open Science published an article with a sweeping dataset comprised of millions upon millions of Facebook/Meta accounts in which they asked, does more social media uptake improve or detract from the well-being of a particular society? To answer this question, they put two variables into relation: 1) the penetration, as it were, of social media into a given country based either on the daily active user (DAU) or monthly active user (MAU) measurements; and 2) the Gallup World Poll measurement of well-being for each correspondent country. The researchers ran a fairly straightforward regression analysis and found, contrary to common axiom, that an increase in the adoption of Facebook usage within a country did not have a generalizable effect, positive or negative, on the well-being of that country.
I have serious concerns with both the conceptualization and methodology of a study like this. I’ll try not to focus too lustily on tearing it apart point-by-point. But a few unanswered questions should make the core of the issue clear: what is the relationship here between psychology and well-being? What is the relationship between a measurement of total DAU/MAU and the individual psychology of those users, as compared to those in their country who don’t use social media to the same extent, for instance, or as compared to a sociological measurement that assesses mental health at aggregate? The methodology attempts something very common, which is that it achieves such an astounding scale at the level of its data set that it wants to infer relationships that have actually not yet been proven or established, which, ironically, might have been the whole point: does social media usage have deleterious psychic effects on its users? The study cannot really say; all it can say is that, at a sociological level, it doesn’t look like more users = more depression. It doesn’t really answer the question with any more precision than it deploys a useful conceptualization of “well-being.” It is, as the critique goes, an affront to the real neuroses of real people, all of whom are spending their real time on social media.
What both of these studies, at odds with one another in their conclusions, fail to do is play the individual and the collective off one another. Those of us who study and write in the realm of critical theory are well-practiced in the art of responding to a most common critique: how can you take concepts meant to apply at the level of the individual and use them instead to theorize collective life? With what warrant does one put into service the concept of Freudian repression, for instance, to describe a culture or a nation? What does "happiness" mean in the context of a room full of people? Isn’t that something internal, singular to the individual? Without getting into it, the answer lies in the fact that we are all tied inextricably together with language, and language is as dynamic as the human psyche, which it shapes and is shaped by. We experience the world internally, sure, but we understand and make sense of it by dint of our communication with others.
But for all the hand-wringing about critical theory and its abstractions and headiness, run-of-the-mill social science research on social media often fails to address this transposition at all, even as it performs it, by using instruments that measure things like “well-being” to stand in as a proxy for real psychological analysis. Or, in the case of the AFT report, it projects a whole backdrop, a history, of both collective and individual phenomena onto the latest and least-researched technologies without asking after the means by which such things come to be.
The AFT report, the title of which, it should be said, is “Likes vs Learning,” contains an entire section on the ways that social media disrupts learning, part of which is devoted to the aforementioned bad behavior that it sees social media as having caused. It concludes, in bold font: “Dealing with social media-related issues detracts from the primary mission of our schools, which is to educate our children.” This is fundamentally curious to me as an educator for one simple reason: social media and its technological brethren have so thoroughly impacted the psychology of education that it’s laughable as a scapegoat. I mentioned earlier the language of the “challenge,” which has become a sort of social media shorthand for a dare, like ice bucket challenge, or, apparently, the slap your teacher challenge. (By the way, I suspect the number of teachers being slapped is fairly minimal, on the whole, compared to the volume of discourse outrage.) I don’t see the language usage as particularly accidental. It reads as an Xbox achievement, virtual badge so clearly coextensive with the gamification of everyday life that it’s hard to separate from the gamification dynamics that people love in other realms. In the navigation app Waze, you get points for driving to work and back, badges for achievements, and your avatar levels up the longer you use the app. From mobile games to language learning apps to frequent purchaser programs, the gamification of everyday life is part and parcel of the contemporary mode of being on the internet, as inextricable from the experience as it is monetizable. And that structure of motivation is bound to change as communication technologies change.
Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage, “the medium is the message,” was in part the popularization of what many scholars in the subfield of Media Ecology understand about communication technologies, if not technology in general: as the predominant lifeworld of media shifts from generation to generation, so too does the conceptual lifeworld of people and their habits change. From this perspective, it makes a certain amount of sense that early Freudian psychology, with all its hydraulic metaphors, gave way later in Freud’s life to theories of the psyche much more aligned with a post-war, civilizational outlook on how the mind, trauma, libido, and language affected the individual. And it makes sense today why the language of the brain has turned to neural networks, the processing of information, and anodyne philosophical questions like “if the brain is a computer, who designs the software?” It’s a ridiculous question principally because the brain is not a computer. Instead, the question that should be asked by people wanting to know the relationship between social media and mental health should be centered on understanding these platforms as sites of collective meaning-making, sites of engagement—sites where people spend their time with others, for better or for worse, and then theorizing that in full view of what is specific to these forms and platforms, which includes not only gamification but also surveillance, elements of the gig economy, regular old advertising, educational programs, etc.
It's absolutely true that social media changed and continues to change the habitus of its users, and not just through the gamification of social interaction. It disrupted communication hierarchies to allow everyone a means of input, it monetized and exploited personal communication for corporate interests, it expanded the available sites and modes of surveillance, it both platforms and provides a means of exposing toxic and violent ideological movements, and much more. In short, the rise of social media’s presence in the American psyche has been coextensive with the general consolidation of late-stage capitalism and its effects, so it’s impossible to pose the question simply in terms of social media as a cause.
In other words, if it’s true that the world’s mental health is getting worse, which is a notion I’m willing to entertain, it’s impossible through simple social scientific analysis to pluck out a cause, at least without doing some deep historical and economic analysis.