On the same day that the governor of my home state of Utah signed a bill requiring parental permission for children under 18 to use platforms such as TikTok, TikTok’s CEO testified before Congress to defend concerns about national security and mental health.
Why the sudden panic?
The CDC report, released roughly a month ago, displayed some shocking statistics:
57% of teenage girls say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness - up from 36% in 2011
30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide - up from 19% in 2011
Teenage boys have also suffered, but the prevalence of their mental illness is lower than that of teenage girls.
Almost 1 in 3 girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide - that’s shocking enough to make any parent squirm in their seat, regardless of the side of the aisle they sit on.
The elephant in the room looms large: is social media use is a significant culprit of this decline in wellbeing amongst our youth?
Social media use proliferated in 2012, and continued to spread nearly in lockstep with levels of depression anxiety, and suicide amongst the population using social media the most, who happen to be in their formative years of development.
Occam’s Razor suggests that simplest answer is usually correct - it’s hard for me to see another culprit as powerful and ubiquitous as social media.
However, my goal in the rest of this newsletter is NOT to prove a causal link between the mental health crisis and social media usage. My goal is to lay out how the underlying mechanics of social media could have led our youth astray.
Exploring this lends insight on how we can do better.
A recent US survey found that 54% of 13-to 38-year-olds want to become social media influencers.
Why wouldn’t they?
From the outside looking in, becoming a social media influencer appears to be as good as winning the lottery, only more obtainable. It seems so obtainable because social media feeds have become filled with algorithmically suggested content, in which users see more influencers than friends. With algorithms that can deliver fast fame and worldwide virality, all it takes is one breakout post to reach hundreds of millions of eyeballs.
The mirage of obtainability is, well, a mirage. Take Instagram, for example, where the business of Instagram works better the more unobtainable it is. Breaking this down:
Instagram keeps the lights on by running ads.
To help advertisers generate ROI for the ads they run, Instagram needs to ensure that more and more people use the app to see the ads on Instagram, giving advertisers the potential to convert an eyeball to a sale.
The more people that post on Instagram, the higher the likelihood that ANY post will achieve success, AKA high engagement.
The more that people post, the lower the likelihood that a SPECIFIC post will achieve success.
In other words, the odds of Instagram succeeding get better as each user's odds of breaking out get worse.
Dror Poleg, an Economic Historian, likens this to a lottery:
Big winners exist only because everyone else bought a ticket. This is true even if some winners have unique traits or skills that increase their odds.
… social networks over-compensate a small number of winners at the expense of all other participants
A lottery only works when enough participants believe they have a chance. The game continues as long as enough people are willing to buy tickets and participate. Further, the game continues as long as enough people are able to buy a ticket — that enough of them are alive, healthy, and have the capacity to try.
How close are we to the point where this is no longer the case?
The perpetual disappointment of not “winning at social media” doesn’t stop at falling short of influencer-superstardom.
Perpetual disappointment in lifestyle
At any given moment, a 14-year-old boy in Iowa is probably watching a man exit a silver Aston Martin as he walks into his mansion. While some consider this “hustle culture” motivational and positive, incentivizing our youth to work hard and achieve, the effect on our youth says otherwise.
He’s caught in a cycle called doom scrolling, where he mindlessly consumes content that delivers a reality distortion field that he is living the life on his screen. As soon as he stops scrolling, reality sets in, along with disappointment.
The “hustle culture” equivalent for teenage girls is the endless feed of attractive women. While some consider this motivation to exercise and eat well, the effect on teenage girls says otherwise. A study done by Kleemans, Daalmans, Carbaat, & Anschütz (2018) shows:
Exposure to manipulated Instagram photos directly led to lower body image. Especially, girls with higher social comparison tendencies were negatively affected by exposure to the manipulated photos. Interestingly, the manipulated photos were rated more positively than the original photos. Although the use of filters and effects was detected, reshaping of the bodies was not noticed very well.
In other words, even if teenagers know about the wonders of photoshop, their brain plays tricks on them. Teenage girls are no longer comparing themselves to their peers, but to the millions of FaceTuned influencers they see while hiding under their bedsheets. Perpetual disappointment, in a new form:
Open any social media app, and you're likely to see a version of the scenes described above. Influencer content is forced on teens, like ducks waiting to become foie gras.
Why is this the type of content that always seems to appear?
The lack of gatekeepers leads to base content
In pre-social media days, accessing the airwaves required the approval of traditional gatekeepers such as movie studios, production houses, TV networks, and book publishers.
In the early days of social media, the major social platforms touted that they were democratizing access to distribution by removing gatekeepers and circumventing the need for approval of traditional publishers.
However, the gatekeeper didn’t disappear; it morphed.
Now, algorithms decide what content is worthy of attention à la clicks, likes, and views from the masses (“engagement”).
This means that the goal of a social media influencer is not to entertain people, but to manipulate the algorithm to get as much engagement as possible in order to access the airwaves. This means that influencers will generate engagement at any cost in order to appease the algorithm. It doesn’t matter for what or why, just get clicks.
To get clicks, influencers have to appeal to the lowest common denominator of subject matter to grab the maximum amount of people’s attention. As such, the content that surfaces takes the form of unrealistic lifestyle depictions, highly sexed women, and derogatory videos. A sunny day in the park with friends is less likely to grab attention than a woman doing a backbend on a yacht, or a video reel of a child contemplating suicidal thoughts.
Four in 10 girls who use Instagram (41%) and TikTok (39%) say they see harmful suicide-related content on these platforms at least once a month (CommonSense Media). If people can’t look away, the mechanics are working in the influencer’s favor.
Gatekeepers have also been removed from consuming content, not just creating it.
Before algorithms held the keys to distribution, if a kid wanted to know what music they should listen to, they’d ask the cool kid in class or the older brother that appeared to have the best taste in rock bands. In other words, they had to go through the content discovery process in a human way, via gatekeepers of culture.
Now, the algorithm tells you what to like, even if you weren’t aware that you had this preference.
The short-form format of this content is the cherry on top.
We serve snacks, not meals
If you go to the movies, a friend might ask you “what did you watch?” When TV ratings are shared, the vernacular used is “viewership”.
When we talk about social media, we use the words “content consumption”.
After seeing a movie, you probably don’t think to yourself “I need to see another.” There is a feeling of being satisfied with what you watched, and there was likely a conversation you’d have with someone about the movie you just saw.
When you consume TikTok or Instagram, it’s closer to the experience of eating Cheetos, as it’s impossible to have just one, and it’s impossible to remember how many you’ve just had. There isn’t anything particularly interesting about each bite, and if you had to recall what you just ate to a friend, you’d just say Cheetos. You probably can’t remember specific takeaways - you just needed to snack.
Social media platforms have perfected this perpetual “one more bite” phenomenon by delivering us content that doesn’t quite satiate us, but gives us the itch to consume one more bite. There’s something about each post that intrigues us, but doesn’t satiate us. Living off snacking alone is dangerous, and it has made us fat.
In the same way that not everyone who snacks is obese, not everyone who uses social media abuses it. However, the form of social media content being “snackable” is tempting for those who might be unable to limit what and how much they consume.
Where do we go from here?
It’s clear that kids are outmatched. Companies are investing billions to create a complex economy designed to perpetuate this.
America’s youth doesn’t understand the rules of the game they are playing. They are largely unequipped to deal with the perpetual wanting, stacked odds, control imbalances, and temptations of social media platforms.
If you speak to kids, they know there are major risks to using these platforms. If you believe that our nation has the responsibility to protect our citizens, social media literacy training for our youth seems like a great place to start.
With respect to the causal link between social media and mental health, Jon Haidt, Social psychologist at NYU-Stern, has compiled tons of great research here, and you should come to your own conclusion if you’re curious to do so:
We can do better.
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This issue needs to be taken seriously. I see it accelerating and the answer to help it to slow down I suspect is going need to be a targeted complex solution. I am of the belief that not only do we need to address where are already, we also need to have a plan to reduce impact moving forward. Thanks for calling attention to this!