Smartphones, Social Media and Depression the Other Pandemic

Social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge recently published a report in The New York Times in which they show that although the COVID-19 pandemic significantly increased the levels of depression and anxiety, especially in young people and adolescents, the origin of the massification of this phenomenon began a decade ago, possibly as a result of the massification of mobile social applications.

How Responsible Are Social Media and Cell Phones for the Rise of Depression in Young People?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.

Undoubtedly, the Covid Pandemic19 is the social phenomenon with the greatest impact that we humans who currently inhabit this planet have witnessed, constituting an evident factor of increase in the number of mental illnesses and psychological affectations, possibly due to the uncertainty about the future, the impact of confinement, the decrease in face-to-face meetings and in many cases the decrease in economic income.

But although the pandemic is an important trigger of psychiatric pathologies, the increase of depression in minors in the United States and Europe is not a recent phenomenon, but has been growing progressively for more than a decade, so there is a much more determining and dangerous factor.

Social psychologists, Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge identified that the rates of depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide among adolescents, began to increase dramatically in the United States from 2012, especially in the so-called generation Z, i.e. those born after 1996 [1].

Initially, academic experts tried to identify external factors, such as the political climate or the economic reality, however, by that time the US economy was improving steadily during those years, so they could not attribute this situation to the economic problems resulting from the great recession of 2008. Nor could they find an explanation in any other event they could blame, with the exception of a particular technological development [2].

We both came to suspect the same culprits: smartphones in general and social media in particular. Jean discovered that 2012 was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone; by 2015, two-thirds of teens did too. This was also the period when social media use moved from optional to ubiquitous among adolescents.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [3].

Research by social psychologists agreed that the marriage between mobile devices and social media, became a trigger for significantly affecting the brains of children, youth and adolescents, fostering addictive and polarizing behaviors.

Jonathan learned, while writing an essay with the technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell, that the major social media platforms changed profoundly from 2009 to 2012. In 2009, Facebook added the like button, Twitter added the retweet button and, over the next few years, users’ feeds became algorithmicized based on “engagement,” which mostly meant a post’s ability to trigger emotions.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [5].

The Responsibility of Facebook and Other Social Media

A previous investigation, also previously published by The Wall Street Journal, entitled “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive” [6], denounced that Facebook had evidence that its algorithms polarize and confront users, but its executives ruled out solutions as they considered that polarization significantly increases the use of the social media.

The report, the result of an internal audit, concluded that the social network’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to confrontation”. This research came in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and its researchers determined that the social network’s algorithms were achieving the opposite effect of their original purpose: to connect the world.

Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge‘s analysis suggests that Facebook’s strategy of increasing users’ attention by manipulating the human mind could be the genesis of many of the mental health problems faced by young people in the United States, especially since Instagram belongs to the same conglomerate.

“The major social media platforms, created an outrage machine that made life online much nastier, faster, more polarized, and more likely to incite performative humiliation. Moreover, as Instagram became more popular over the next decade, it had particularly strong effects on girls and young women, as the network invited them to “compare and despair” while looking at the posts of friends and strangers whose faces, bodies, and lives had been edited over and over again until many were closer to perfection than reality.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [7].

Social Media Should Be Treated as a Public Health Issue

For the academic and expert in attention economy: Bruno Patiño, who is the author of the book “The civilization of the goldfish, a short treatise on the attention market [8]”, the mixture of three factors are the biggest triggers in the attention and mental health problems of minors:

It was the adoption of the economic model, the massification of the smartphone and the commercialization of private data that triggered the problems arising from the consumption of digital platforms and content:

With the invention of the smartphone, you can be connected all day long. Facebook can try to capture your attention 24 hours a day, something impossible to achieve with a computer or television screen.”

Patiño states that at the time:

“The big Internet corporations, develop instruments that go from habit to addiction, that is to say that they go from trying to provoke a reaction from you to provoke an emotion from you, because emotion is the most efficient link for a message to have an economic profitability.”  Interview by Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo [9].

For their part Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, consider that the impact even goes beyond a problem of depression and anxiety, and becomes a real public health problem that even affects relationships and social interactions significantly:

“As smartphones became common, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships and the texture of daily life for everyone — even those who don’t own a phone or don’t have an Instagram account. It’s harder to strike up a casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is staring down at a phone. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is interrupted randomly by buzzing, vibrating “notifications.” As Sherry Turkle wrote in her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” life with smartphones means “we are forever elsewhere.”” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [11]

A Problem that Worries Experts

Neurologists, Psychiatrists, Sociologists and Psychologists around the world, have expressed their concern about the impact of the improper and indiscriminate use of algorithms by companies like Facebook and its impact on people’s mental health.

For Psychiatrist Marian Rojas, Facebook and Instagram are a “Drug and Likes Are Dopamine Sparks” and therefore social media should be treated as such.

Social media and cocaine are regulated by the same hormone, dopamine, which gives you pleasure, but creates addictions. The “likes” are micro-sparks of dopamine. The networks are constantly sending us news of what is happening in the world, and that makes us, by our survival instinct, live always alert…

“The big problem is that we stop living in the real world to have a virtual life that brings us instant gratifications. Today we connect better with a screen than with a person. I see kids in my practice who I’m teaching to flirt, because it takes time, effort and the possibility that they will say no to you. And today there is no frustration tolerance; we want everything here and now, and our brain has become accustomed to that”. Psychiatrist Marian Rojas [12].

On the other hand, social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, consider that although social media could give the perception that we are becoming more connected, in reality the phenomenon is comparable to the paradox of food and the consumption of empty calories, i.e. there are not necessarily more functional relationships, but on the contrary, a deep void in the socialization process of adolescents and young people.

“All young mammals play, especially those that live in groups like dogs, chimpanzees and humans. All such mammals need tens of thousands of social interactions to become socially competent adults. In 2012 it was possible to believe that teens would get those interactions via their smartphones — far more of them, perhaps. But as data accumulates that teenage mental health has changed for the worse since 2012, it now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories. Just imagine what teenagers’ health would be like today if we had taken 50 percent of the most nutritious food out of their diets in 2012 and replaced those calories with sugar.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [13]

In Conclusion, the explosive mix of Mobile, Social Media, Big Corporations with little ethics, the attention economy, the growing digital advertising market, the development and massification of Smartphones, Artificial Intelligence, the trade of private data and the ambition of characters like Mark Zuckerberg, have turned social media and digital content into a kind of black hole that absorbs unhealthy amounts of human attention, using dopamine as a neuronal stimulus in the same way that synthetic drugs do, triggering serious mental pathologies, especially in children, youth and adolescents.

Many social psychologists, such as Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, believe that smartphones and social media not only affect individuals, but also social groups, causing serious consequences ranging from mental health, to the risk of interference in social interactions that affect the relationships of future generations and the functional coexistence of the species itself, turning this worrying phenomenon into another type of social pandemic, which requires urgent attention from health and telecommunications authorities around the world.

[1] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge

[2] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[3] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge

[4] Essay published by Jonathan Haidt

[5] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[6] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intent to polarize.

[7] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[8] Book: The civilization of fish memory: a short treatise on the market for attention. Alianza ensayo.  Bruno Patiño. Translated by Alicia Martorell, Alicia Martorell Linares. Alianza, 2020. ISBN 8491819681, 9788491819684. 180 pages.

[9] Interview of the Author Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo.

[10] Book: Title Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, Penguin Publishing Group, 2016 ISBN 0143109790, 9780143109792 436 pages.

[11] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge.

[12] Publication by Psychiatrist Marian Rojas.

[13] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge