There are many reasons social media is harmful, to both the individual and to what’s left of our democracy. It claims to connect, but it distances; it claims to increase empathy, but its role in increasing antipathy is perhaps its defining characteristic; it claims to broaden access to information, but it produces treacherous, unpoppable information bubbles. Despite Facebook’s recent attempt to re-brand as an exemplar of moral innocence, their ethical history is on par with a totalitarian, third-world regime: They have been infinitely greedy and manipulative, and they’ve been smug about it.
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop,” Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker, recently told Axios. “Exactly the kind of thing a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… The inventors, its creators—it’s me, it’s Mark, it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all these people—understood this consciously. And we did it anyway… It literally changes your relationship with society… God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”
Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, admitted to a similar regret to the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
“No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth,” he said. “This is a global problem. I feel tremendous guilt.”
To continue giving this company business post-2016 is a serious moral dilemma that I urge us all to confront in our own hearts.
But above all, I’m leaving Facebook permanently because of its role in increasing depression and anxiety in teenagers—the kids I work with every day—and the responsibility I hold to model healthy behavior to them. The evidence for this connection is overwhelming, widely-distributed, and paid little serious attention. It’s all easy to find, but here are a few highlights:
- Adolescents who spend an hour a day on social media report less satisfaction in every area of their lives.
- Eighth graders who use social media more than 10 hours a week are 56% more likely to report being unhappy than whose who don’t; and those who use it between 6-9 hours per week are 47% more likely to report being unhappy than those who don’t.
- A study of girls between the ages of 10 and 12 found the more they used social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, the more likely they were to idolize thinness, have concerns about their bodies, and to have dieted.
- Kids who spend an above-average amount of time with friends in person are 20% less likely to say they are unhappy.
- Eighth graders who report heavy social media usage are 27% more likely to be depressed.
- Social media use in teens has been repeatedly tied to insufficient sleep, which can lead to a variety of mental illnesses.
- Teens who spend more than three hours a day on a smart device are 35% more likely to be at risk for suicide.
- 48% more girls reported feeling “left out” in 2015 than they reported in 2010.
- 50% more girls reported being depressed in 2015 than they reported in 2010.
(On top of all this, Facebook has been caught preparing research for advertising clients on how to target teens when they are most emotionally vulnerable. This is gross beyond my ability to articulate).
In an era where the campaign to improve self esteem in children is as ubiquitous as social media itself, these findings offer a swift smack as to how well that is going.
While the national debate over school shootings justifiably centers around access to guns, social media’s role in the rise of depression and anxiety in teens goes comparatively unmentioned. If our goal is to decrease the conditions that lead to these horrific events, we would do well to reevaluate our children’s relationship with social media.
We have collectively given the “OK” to putting devices in their pockets that connect to Facebook and Instagram, platforms that are psychologically destructive and designed to modify behavior according to corporate interests and social pressure.
We have robbed them of pieces of their free will when it is most crucial they develop independent thought.
We urge them to be individuals, to find and speak their truths, and yet we hook them up to a matrix that rewards conformity and punishes individuality.
And then we, the adults, have the gall to complain about the dreaded millennials and their foibles. We were the ones who handed them this world. It’s our fault, not theirs. The collective psychological damage inflicted by our mistakes must be addressed soberly and comprehensively. Deleting Facebook is a fine place to begin this re-imagining and realigning of our values.
It is vital to stress: I am not judging parents for past decisions. As an educator of ten years, I’ve observed that parenting is impossible. It is a chaotic minefield of tense negotiation and uneasy compromise. The undertaking is nothing short of heroic: irreducible in its complexity, and bottomless in its gravity.
But that doesn’t diminish our responsibility to address these issues without concern for hurt feelings. The stakes are too high.
It occurred to me recently that, for years, I’ve played a role in normalizing this destructive behavior, and now it is my moral responsibility to stop. The experiment that is the social media age as we know it has caused more harm than good. In other words, it has failed. And so we must walk away. While adults are less susceptible to the adverse psychological effects of social media, we all know deep down it isn’t healthy for us, either. We remember life being more fulfilling, more joyful. We fail to acknowledge this for the same reason it’s hard to quit smoking. Our brains have been remapped. We can’t stop doing what’s killing us.
It’s time to quit. Because I want us all to stop suffering needlessly. Facebook has been a shallow high, if we are to be honest with ourselves, and it will be forgotten and replaced once our addiction is kicked.
Let’s download all our pictures and happy memories, glad we have them, and leave the rest behind.
My recent months spent unplugged have taught me so much, but one lesson above all: The fear I had of letting go was both powerful and totally unfounded. I was afraid of missing out on important events, birthdays for friends, social invites, professional opportunities, etc., etc., etc.. But I’ve remained closely connected with the people I care about, and I’ve quickly forgotten about the people I don’t. My teaching practice has continued to grow without a hitch. My family has kept a running group text going, six of us in all. We share funny videos of nephews, cute pictures of pets, and meaningful sentiments on holidays, sometimes even out of the blue. This has been much more fulfilling than merely seeing such things on Facebook along with the rest of the world. I suggest everyone try it with the people they love. I have more frequently contacted individual friends to check in and arrange quality time, and the quality of our friendships has only grown. I remain easy to get in touch with, and the people I care about get in touch often. On the flipside, I continue to not care much about the people I don’t care much about. I wish them all love and happiness, of course, but beyond that, they aren’t actually in my life these days. And that’s normal, and that’s life.
I’ve grown to know my physical neighbors more these past few months, as well, because I’ve freed up mental and emotional space for them. (It’s as simple as looking up.) The friendly banter we exchange is always warm and small, and it has reminded me of the value of having a real community of people around me. My mailman has a big beer belly, and he carries it with the swagger of a millionaire rap star, and the kid who serves me coffee next to my office is new to town and plays guitar, and he’s hoping to latch on to a jazz-fusion band. I love that I know that, and I look forward to his updates.
What will be the replacement for Facebook? Beats me. I’m not tech savvy enough to guess in the specific. But I imagine, I hope, it will keep the good parts and discard the bad.
Regardless, it must be something else. I’m counting on the ingenuity of those who understand these things to figure it out. And I’m hoping their hearts will sincerely be in the right place.
Technology itself is neither good nor bad. Its moral value and utility is found in how we use it. Let’s make better use of what we have. It is our responsibility to ourselves, to our children, and to our democracy.