18th December 2017 – A senior figure at Facebook has acknowledged that social media sites can damage mental health but says users need to focus on interacting with friends and family to make the most out of what the technology has to offer.
David Ginsberg, Facebook's director of research, and Moira Burke, a social psychologist employed by the company, question whether members are using the site to communicate with each other or just to consume trivia when they could be spending quality time with loved ones.
"As parents, each of us worries about our kids' screen time and what 'connection' will mean in 15 years," they write in a Facebook press release.
The authors weigh conflicting evidence about whether social media is a force for better communication or a channel leading to anxiety and depression.
The media post comes after Chamath Palihapitiya, a former vice-president of user growth at the media giant, said sorry for his role in building tools that destroy "the social fabric of how society works".
Mr Palihapitiya, who left the company in 2011, is quoted as saying: "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistruth."
Those comments last month were made a day after Facebook’s founding president, Sean Parker, criticised the way that the company "exploit[s] a vulnerability in human psychology" by creating a "social-validation feedback loop".
Posting 'can bring joy'
Just a few days later, the senior figures have pointed to conflicting evidence about how sites like Facebook affect us.
They say some academics have highlighted how people can feel bad about themselves if they just spend time passively consuming information, including 'clickbait'. However, other research has explored how sharing messages, posts and comments with family and close friends can bring "joy and strengthens our sense of community".
"In sum”, they say, "our research and other academic literature suggests that It's about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being."
'Maintain a balance'
In an emailed comment, Stephen Buckley, head of information at the mental health charity Mind, says: "Used in a positive way, social media can play a useful role in a person's wider support network and promote good mental health. We do know, however, that social media, with the constant bombardment of updates, can stir up several emotions which could impact negatively on our mental health, and it’s good to see this being acknowledged.
"It has been suggested that comparing ourselves to others through social media could lower self-esteem. Although low self-esteem isn’t in itself a mental health problem, it could contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, so it’s important to use social media safely and recognise when this might be having a negative impact on your mental health.
"Whatever your relationship with social media, it’s important to maintain a good balance between your online and offline activity. If you’re feeling vulnerable or are spending too much time on social media, it might be worth taking a break from social media for a bit or to set aside some time each day to do something else like reading a book or doing some physical activity like going for a walk or even doing some gardening.
"While traditional social media sites like Facebook have been seen as problematic in relation to mental health, we do know that lots of people find online forums and support networks useful, especially if they feel unable to confide in friends or lack strong social connections."
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