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Connected, But Not In Touch: How Social Media Affects Mental Health

Last week, NYC's Mayor Eric Adams and his staff announced they are suing social media companies for endangering children's mental health, promoting addiction, and encouraging unsafe behavior. These companies deny these allegations, essentially stating that they are only responsible for their ability to keep people "connected”. While the two sides point fingers at “what is credible data?” that gives one side the advantage, let’s not miss the forest for the trees.


How does social media actually affect our mental health? Simply put, social media takes the emotional energy we typically spend with our friends and family (i.e. practicing belonging) and uses it to stay engaged on their platforms. 


I think it's best summarized by a book excerpt I read from “A Gift from The Sea”:

“We are asked today to feel compassionately for everyone in the world; to digest intellectually all the information spread out in public print; and to implement in action every ethical impulse aroused by our hearts and minds. The interrelatedness of the world links us constantly with more people than our hearts can hold. Or rather for I believe the heart is infinite modern communication loads us with more problems than the human frame can carry.” This was written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh in … 1955.


Anne was making a shrewd observation, with sage grandma-like wisdom, about the power of information – specifically, its ability to trigger our desire to act on an ethical impulse. Social media platforms know this and count on it to profit.


These platforms make money by generating impressions (clicks) for their ad marketers. Their goal is to keep our attention and make us click on sponsored content. They achieve that by showing us information that has the highest likelihood of triggering our ethical impulse, either content that gets a lot of clicks or information similar to what we've clicked on before. What we click on both makes them money and is the evidence they throw back in our faces to say they've provided us with relevant information that has kept us connected to the world. So, they press on us an overwhelming amount of information that we decipher and validate for its relevance.


“Relevance” is their attempt at steering us away from the latter point Anne made nearly 70 years ago, that modern communication overloads us with more problems than we can carry. The moment social platforms acknowledge there is a limit to what we can carry, they are forced to acknowledge how a "doom-scroll" amount of information hurts our mental health – our ability to be present. Limiting the amount of information their users consume would not be good for their business model. So, they ignore the notion of a limit, put the onus on parents to determine the right amount of engagement with “parental controls”, and deny responsibility for any individual’s in/ability to deduce what is relevant to them.


Now, allow me to speak on behalf of those who consider mental health as health. Sure, thank you social media, for keeping us connected, but we are tired of being preyed upon for our tendency to act compassionately. We deserve better than a social platform that looks like my spam email account with more pictures and videos. We are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic, among other mental health crises, and your form of connection has been void of helping us keep in touch with our friends, family, and present problems. Stop trying to add more "relevant" nonsense to my plate when you don't care to acknowledge or be considerate of my mental health.


I understand that even if you, the reader, agree with me here, it's more complicated than that. Social media has become such a staple in society that we feel the need to have a digital presence to remain pertinent among our peer groups and friends. I think there is real economic value in being able to “connect” with people who can give you a business opportunity in an instant. Still, I suggest trading in quick confirmations of relevance for the peace of mind that comes from relating to people.


To do that, we must make time to talk about our feelings. Feelings are our subconscious' way of determining what matters. Everyone is capable of making a decision and living with the consequences, but as we get older, life gets more nuanced, and we all need help making meaning out of the feelings we experience.


For example, let's say I tear an ACL. Deciphering all the information in public print, I know that surgery is recommended and there will be a long recovery process. However, my next action wouldn't be to start calling all the orthopedic surgeons that Google maps says are in my area. I would feel more secure gathering information from people who I can relate to. I would ask my friends who have torn an ACL how to better understand my predicament. That would give me context for how I can operate and belong in my habitual environments, by receiving information from someone that I personally know.


To recap, to be in touch is to know how we’ve been feeling. Talking about feelings helps us relate. Finding someone who can relate helps us belong - belong in the areas we are suffering through, solutioning in, and preparing to get hurt again for.


Social media companies have helped us connect, but they can't help us keep in touch. Effectively keeping us in touch would only reinforce how much we don't need to be interrupted by their advertisements. It’s time we relieve our minds of irrelevant information and enrich them with our present relationships. Let's make Anne, and our actual grandmas, proud by embracing information that inspires us to act compassionately to the people and the problems that are personal to us.


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