Living and Viewing Curated Lifestyles on Social Media Is Damaging Our Wellbeing

social media negatively impacting mental health

This week, revelations from whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, dominated the news. Haugen’s claims against the social media giant are damning. She firmly asserts that Facebook is harmful to children, undermines democracy, and sows divisions within society to drive profits.

Haugen’s one-two punch against her former employer included an interview on 60 Minutes and testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security. Many media analysts and experts believe that Haugen’s claims pose the greatest threat to the company since its beginnings.

Shortly after Haugen’s testimony, Facebook and its other social media companies WhatsApp, Messenger, Oculus, and Instagram mysteriously went offline during a worldwide outage that started at 11:40 a.m. on Monday, October 4, 2021.

While some chuckled, made jokes, and celebrated what seemed to be the pending “death” of Facebook, others raised concerns about how many Global South nations and small business owners rely on Facebook’s products as their sole means of communication and for their livelihoods. Social media dependency is deeply embedded in the fabric of daily existence for millions of people. Leaders in many nations, including the EU and several politicians within the US, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), pursue legislation and regulatory efforts to treat Big Tech as utilities.

I do not believe anyone who researches and monitors Big Tech was surprised by the details of Haugen’s testimony or the move of several nations to apply more regulation on social media companies like Facebook. For many of us, Haugen’s claims further affirm how social media curation and manipulation can have profoundly negative impacts.

Broader attention to the Facebook whistleblower case followed the release of alleged internal Instagram research from Haugen that purports that the site is aware that their practices harm the self-esteem of teenage girls (paywalled). However, teen girls are not the only ones susceptible to damaging imagery shared on social media.

Over the past year, my friends and close colleagues have migrated off of social media en masse. Adults from all socioeconomic backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities generally express the same sentiments that led to them deleting their accounts. The pressure they feel when their complicated yet completely everyday realities collide with the highly curated lifestyles they see on social media is causing tremendous pressure and stress.

Higher education institutions rarely (if ever) address social media consumption as an emotional and mental health issue affecting staff. Most institutional resource allocation regarding social media and mental health appears to be primarily focused on student wellbeing.

Higher education’s focus on social media’s impact on mental health, social wellbeing, and citizenship is long overdue (paywalled). New wellness services to assist staff and faculty are essential for people to better grasp how and why the presentation of certain content elicits strong emotions of anger, hostility, jealousy, sadness, or frustration.

Higher education staff, faculty, and students are best equipped to encourage people to approach social media usage with caution, supported by more than a decade of research. It is time to view social media as exceptionally disruptive to the pursuit of truth and emotional peace. Higher education staff and leaders at every level must be open to critically interrogating and challenging social media beyond its utilitarian functions.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.

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