Thursday, 8 February 2018


On a bitterly cold February evening there was a 'good turnout' for Wednesday night's Greenwich Skeptics in the Pub talk, Social media and the teenage mental health 'epidemic' - moral panic 2.0?

Those quotes around the word 'epidemic' give you a clue as to what position speaker Dr Niall McCrae was likely to take on the subject but they don't give you the whole picture. Dr McCrae is a lecturer in mental health at King’s College London and he's written two books: The Moon and Madness, on the legendary notion of lunar influence on human behaviour, and Echoes from the Corridors, a history of nursing in the asylums. His delivery may've been a touch academic for a pub audience but it was never dull and you'd find it hard to doubt his credentials.

Of late there's been a lot of tabloid (and broadsheet) scare stories about the deleterious effects of social media on the mental health of teenagers but very little serious research done in to investigating if there's any truth in any of this. Both the mental health and childcare units at King's had become very interested in this subject so Niall, along with two of his colleagues, decided to have a deeper look into it. One of these colleagues, Sheryl Gettings, felt it likely there was something in these stories whilst another, Edward Purssell, thought, to put it mildly, that it was all a load of old codswallop. Niall saw himself as taking a centrist position but would their studies drag him one way or the other?

There have been moral panics about new technologies for as long, in fact much longer, as any of us can recall. When I was a kid it was video games that were going to turn our brains to mush, for our parents television would ruin everything, and for our grandparents the cinema was the demon du jour. Even back in the nineteenth century there was huge public concern about 'railway sickness'. Travelling along rails, noisily, vibrating, it wasn't natural. It couldn't be good for us. Some crazy fools even dared to sit backwards on these new fangled steam trains. Chaos!

Now, of course, the big new show in town is social media. From Friends Reunited to Myspace on to Facebook and Twitter, the social media revolution has been, like one of those infernal locomotives, gathering steam for some time now. But it was the popularisation, less than a decade ago, of the smart phone that really ramped up our reliance, our dependency if you prefer, on social media to arrange our lives.

This culture of 'constant contact' meant that the megacorporations of the Internet were able to consolidate their grip on our free time, our spending, and on how we receive our news. If and when new players appear on the scene they're quickly bought out by giants like Google and Amazon. That, however, is more one for the Monopolies and Mergers Commission than for Greenwich Skeptics.

Those who analyse internet usage tend to split people into two groups. On the one hand you've got those born before 1985, the digital immigrants, who still use the internet (obviously) but also value time spent watching television, reading the papers and books, going to the pub, and even, don't be too shocked by this, enjoying face to face interactions.

On the other hand those born after 1985 are deemed digital natives. It's a broad, perhaps too broad, generalisation but it's certainly true that a generation has grown up who take the internet for granted in the same way that my generation took, and take, television and motor cars as given. As something that's always been there - and always will!

Whilst it's undoubtedly true that social media makes it easier for us to stay in regular contact with each other some observers have begun to wonder if, and others have become utterly convinced that, the downsides of Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook don't massively outweigh their positives. The neuroscientist Susan Greenfield, in her book Mind Change:How 21st Century Technology Is Leaving Its Mark On The Brain, claims social media usage has an adverse impact on brain wiring, personality, identity, and relationship formation skills.

Sherry Turkle,  Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in her book, Alone Together, makes the case for Facebook and Twitter 'addiction' having negative effects on family relationships, self awareness, and empathy.

Other, more general, criticisms of social media include the increased narcissism of selfies (Instagram being seen as the chief offender here), sexting (fine between consenting adults you'd think but a very grey area as far as the police are concerned), cyber bullying and trolling, and people over sharing information thus leading to loss of control and exposure of one's vulnerabilities. It seems both anonymity and lack of anonymity are serious problems on the web. In cyberspace both everyone, and no-one, can hear you scream.

It's also suggested that when you go into the silicon valley of the trolls you're subject to peer pressure so forceful you're almost coerced into a restrictive form of social conformity. Conformity and confirmation bias is rewarded with the dopamine hit of a like, a RT, or a new follower. Because of this we end up with a 'rich get richer' scenario where those with already well honed, well practised social skills derive the most benefit and those with low self-esteem, unconventional or unpopular views, or those who don't conform to traditional notions of attractiveness are pushed the other way and further marginalised by a society they already felt isolated from.

The unrealistic expectations that are promoted on social media platforms can also lead people to comparing their lives with either the cherry-picked highlights of their friends lives or to the jet set, champagne swilling, lifestyles of models, pop stars, and football players. It's hard not to feel a bit inferior in comparison although you could, perhaps, check their atrocious grammar, their dreadful spelling, their moronic sermonising, and the utter futility of their endless climb up a greasy pole that can only stay firm if enough of us below hold tight to it and then you might see the charade of celebrity for what it is.

Donald Trump has 47,000,000 followers on Twitter and he is, by some huge margin, the most loathed man on the planet. His chief arse licker (UK branch) Piers Morgan has 6,000,000 followers and yet you'd be hard stretched to find anyone who doesn't think he's one of the slimiest, most egregious, turds that ever washed up on the shore of humanity's beach. If you judge yourself, or your friends, by the amount of Twitter followers you/they have you're playing the game of Trump and Morgan, a game that values quality over quantity at all times. A dispiriting race to the bottom.

So, yeah, there's lots of potential problems with social media usage and the social media platforms themselves. Even Mark Zuckerberg has admitted this (though he'd have to as his chief interest is to keep people on Facebook, if the company gets a bad rap people start leaving so he's only doing what any CEO would do in the face of stiff criticism) but with both the police and the government powerless to do anything about it (it would appear that, at the moment, the government are powerless to do anything except squabble amongst themselves about whose turn it is to fuck up Brexit today) it's looking unlikely that the runaway train of social media is likely to become either regulated or derailed any time soon.

So, with all this in mind, it may come as a surprise that the results of Dr McCrae and his colleagues research revealed that there is no correlation whatsoever between teenage depression and social media usage. Certainly there is more depression reported in youngsters these days but that could be down to reporting, a slight (though nowhere near enough) loosening of the stigma attached to mental health, a tendency to over diagnose lesser complaints like anxiety as depression, or, the precarious state of the world we live in and the diminishing prospects the younger generation have of gaining meaningful employment or being able to buy their own homes.

The survey was a kind of meta-analysis and I don't pretend to fully understand how it worked but the gist was something like this:- Niall and his colleagues narrowed down two thousand reports into social media usage and mental health to 123 papers and then finally just the eleven (from Australia, USA, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Romania, Canada, and Taiwan) most relevant to their interests. Those eleven covered 12,646 total cases and crunching all the stats together there was no evidence at all that social media caused mental health problems, no clinical significance could be read into the reports at all.

It seems likely that, like video games, television, cinema, railways, the printing press (and even, a member of the audience suggested, the written word - it was once thought writing things down would destroy people's memories), that even if the internet and social media brings with it its own unique and highly specific set of problems and challenges, most of the furore is indeed, as the quotes in the title of the show suggested, a moral panic. A highly instructive coda to the talk was the revelation that Dr McCrae's study has received precisely zero citations and absolutely no media coverage at all. The story that social media is bad for us sells newspapers - and newspapers may have their own agenda for wanting to curb the usage of social media.

That doesn't mean we should rest easy. Just as there may be television programmes and films you'd probably not be happy with your children viewing you need to be careful with what they're doing, and who they're doing it with, on the internet. So next time you see the lazy evolution meme of an ape turning into a spear carrying warrior and then finally into a man seated in an office chair tapping away at a computer take it with a pinch of salt. Is being a spear carrying warrior so great after all anyway?

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