Researchers have found that social media platforms, including Facebook, can cause or exacerbate the symptoms of depression in teenagers.
A group of scholars and influential signatories have sent an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling for more transparency about its research into how Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp affect the mental health of children and adolescents.
The letter urges Meta executives to commit to gold-standard transparency on child and adolescent mental health research, contribute to independent research and establish an independent oversight trust for the child and adolescent mental health on Meta platforms.
“Unfortunately, that research is happening behind closed doors and without independent oversight. Therefore, we have only a fragmented picture of the studies your companies are conducting.”, the letter stated.
The letter criticized the “methodologically questionable and secretive ways” Meta’s teams are conducting, asking for producing reliable scientific insights.
Meta revealed in recent press reports that it conducted research, but the scientists’ letter said there is intense skepticism and widespread alarm by lawmakers, journalists, parents, and young people, “This is frustrating, because if the right scientific and ethical tools were in place, data collected by Meta could inform how we understand digital technology use and its influence on mental health in unprecedented ways.”
Many scholars, who signed the letter, already conducted several studies on the harmful impact of virtual environments.
One of these studies on problematic social media behaviour indicated that addiction to social media was associated with lower mental, school, and social well-being.
Study findings from 154,981 adolescents in 29 countries showed adolescents who spend a lot of time on social media typically have a diminished ability to regulate their platforms usage impulses and feel discomfort such as stress or anxiety when social media is restricted.
The main study's concern was on intense social media users who spend less offline time with friends or family that may negatively impact their social well-being. Losing access to social media makes them feel bad, conceivably harming their mental well-being.
Other researchers found that social media platforms, including Facebook, are associated with an increased likelihood of depressive symptoms in adults who didn’t report depression.
In 2021, increased awareness about the potential harm that social media platforms like Instagram can have on teens’ mental health.
Coronavirus pandemic changed the way people use social media. In 2020, the average American spent 65 minutes a day on social media. This year there is a nearly 20 percent increase, according to Statista, with Facebook still the most preferred platform for Covid-19 updates.
Dan Perry, a writer and technologist, said, “Unlike Facebook, we do not need the Metaverse.”
He asked whether we need to replicate our existing universe as a “3-D cartoon while wearing a headset. That is, essentially, Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse.”
He noted the disappointing adoption of both virtual reality and 3D television. Most buyers of 3D TVs regretted the purchase about a decade ago, when there was a drive to market them.
“Analyses tended to focus on implementation – clunky glasses, extra costs – but the demand for the content itself was not there.” Perry explains, “These failures are all related, and the reason is psychological. A 3D experience takes over your consciousness and invades your personal space; it literally cannot be kept at arm’s length.”
“A 3D universe that takes over your brain may be immersive, but then again, a torture chamber is immersive.”
However, Dr. David Reid, Professor of AI and Spatial Computing at Liverpool Hope University, thinks it will change our lives just like the internet did.
He’s also apprehensive about potential dangers, “The metaverse has huge implications – it comes with fantastic advantages and terrifying dangers. And we need a highly robust system in place to police the metaverse.”
“We’re clearly in the very early stages but we need to start talking about these problems now before we go down a route we can’t reverse away from. It’s crucial for the future.”
Professor Reid is concerned about the vast amount of data collected from the metaverse and who controls it.
He fears that avatars could be hacked and you could end up interacting with cybercriminals rather than people you know and trust.
Avoiding the harm
Schools, family, and clinical settings are potential contexts for the detection of adolescents with problematic social media use and the implementation of support and interventions aimed at reducing the levels of risks by such virtual platforms.
Scientists proposed the establishment of an independent oversight trust for the child and adolescent mental health on Meta platforms.
In their letter, they said, “The time is right for a new global trust dedicated to promoting credible, independent, and rigorous oversight on the mental health implications of Meta.”
They seek to evaluate material risks to mental health, collecting scientific evidence, and vetting tools and solutions. They called upon Zuckerberg to extend this accountability to the critical matter of youth mental health.
A global trust underpinned by Meta's data and informed by experts and stakeholders with diverse lived experiences can tackle the challenges of studying and promoting young people's mental health.
Meta partnered with experts earlier to help people access information and improve their emotional health. It called users to prioritize emotional health by checking in with other users. But many mental health experts said this is not enough and before such effort by Meta, research data should be accessible.
Psychologists advise that limiting social media use to about 10 minutes per platform a day can provide a more healthy relationship with social networks, although deleting certain apps that cause severe distress is encouraged.
A temporary break from social media can ease the stress temporarily. But altogether, abandoning social media may not be realistic long-term — and people might find themselves wanting to re-engage healthily.
Some advice included paying attention to personal feelings and setting screen time limits for specific apps.
With three billion people using Meta platforms for socialising, leisure, and business it is highly plausible that these virtual environments have far-reaching effects on the mental health of younger users — in both positive and negative ways, according to scientists who are waiting for data to contribute to avoidance of harm to users' mental health.