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Does social media harm mental health?

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LA Post: Does social media harm mental health?
January 27, 2024
Nahal Garakani - LA Post

A controversial new study from Oxford University experts says that more people using the internet has not really changed global mental health trends. The large study of over two million people from 168 countries, which was published in Nature Human Behaviour, tried to settle different ideas about how technology affects people's minds. Even though they don't see a clear threat, experts agree that they don't have enough data to measure the effects in the real world.

"There is no smoking gun to confirm that digital technologies are dangerously messing with the human psyche on a grand scale," said co-author Andrew Przybylski, adding the caveat that "research on the topic is contested and hampered by methodological shortcomings." Study partners, including Facebook's parent company Meta, possess detailed statistics on platform engagement unavailable to independent scientists. And therein lies the central catch - without transparency from big tech firms, objective research remains stalled.

"Until these data can be transparently analyzed for the public good, the potential harmful effects of the Internet and other digital environments will remain unknown," the study abstract states. So, while finding only minor mental health shifts amid rising connectivity, Oxford cannot fully validate optimism or alarms around technology. The truth likely rests somewhere between, accessible solely behind the closed doors of Silicon Valley server rooms. Partnerships enabling genuine inquiry serve all interests if prioritizing wellness over profits or reputational risk.

Critically, the analysis overlapped a period seeing depressed, anxious, and suicidal young people double by 2018, per the American Psychological Association. And the pandemic turbocharged usage - teens now average over 8 hours online daily. In that context, stability seems a success. But Oxford's professorial participants still feel scientific stonewalling by platforms precludes definitive conclusions from their unprecedented global mental health probe.

"What we tried to contribute is to get the best evidence from around the world on global-level changes in mental health and relate them to changes in internet access," Przybylski said. "On a global level, there doesn't seem to be anything catastrophic happening to mental health that you could link to internet access."

While true on that broad level, his study partner, Dr. Matti Vuorre, acknowledges fuller pictures require "being completely open about both the positive and negative potential effects of digital technologies." As they call for increased collaboration between independent scientists and tech firms, data leaks and testimony hint at what such transparency might unveil.

Take Instagram - a 2021 whistleblower exposed its owner, Meta's awareness social media worsened body issues for teen girls. "This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups," one leaked slide warned, detailing a strong link between usage and declining self-image. Similar documents revealed algorithms maximizing outrage and conspiracy clicks for profit.

Vuorre admits the full consequences of what he terms "potentially addictive and fraught" platforms remain unclear absent internal research access. But glimmers slip out, like a 2022 Facebook study linking over 20% increased depression risk to elevated use in young adults. Still, Oxford cannot incorporate such findings to inform policy advice with companies blocking data access.

While researching his recent book Heartflix, media psychologist Pamela Rutledge explored emotional manipulation techniques social apps leverage to retain young users. "They have the ability to make content so compelling that it overrides our basic needs - like food, sleep and emotional comfort from loved ones," she wrote. Dire mental health outcomes she uncovered echo leaked revelations companies themselves buried.

So do government findings - over 30 states now accuse Meta of violating consumer laws and mental health duties to profit off youth vulnerability. Biden, too, has condemned failures to protect children online in consecutive State of the Union speeches amid attempts from both parties to force accountability around developmental harms. His Surgeon General calls teen social media a full-blown crisis requiring urgent confrontation.

Yet regulation remains gridlocked by disputes over research access and validity. Oxford's Vuorre expressed hope their global analysis might pressure recalcitrant platforms towards transparency for the greater good. But while the scale of their project broke ground, conclusions proved tentative at best. And the central culprits retain iron grips on the very data needed to drive reform.

"What is out there is contested and really very limited in what it can tell us about how teenagers and children interact with digital spaces," said Roxy Farr, a digital anthropologist studying content moderation. She argues thin external findings reflect platforms hoarding damning statistics exposing mental health dangers. Laws like Europe's Digital Services Act aim to pry open the black box shrouding tech's psychological footprint.

But in the U.S., lobbying might delay action against attention economy juggernauts valued collectively in the trillions.  Just this month, Meta introduced a narrowly limited new research API sharing slivers of real-time Facebook usage data, but omitting imagery-centric Instagram or demographic indicators needed to assess vulnerable groups. Critics dismissed the calculated partial disclosure as inadequate.

"We cannot understand the effects technologies have without access to data about how people are actually using them," said Oxford psychologist and study co-author Amy Orben in response to restrictive proprietary metrics. "The power and importance of using objective behavioral data to understand the impact of technology cannot be underestimated."

It seems then for now researchers must extrapolate from piecemeal leaks and outside policy blows gradually eroding Big Tech's opacity. Biden's FTC cracks down on illegally monitoring kids online, lawsuits force revelations around algorithmic engagement tricks, and whistleblowers emerge shedding light on known mental health risks companies themselves confirmed internally.

Slowly, the empirical basis takes shape to design ethical interventions as digital immersion rewires a generation. But Oxford's report clarifies the scale of potential fallout still undisclosed, and the conflicts of interest maintaining ignorance.

As Dr. Vuorre concluded, "Only by being completely open about both the positive and negative potential effects of digital technologies can we build an evidence-based path forward that maximizes benefits and minimizes harm.” The mental health stakes for vulnerable youth demand nothing less from powerful giants claiming progress as their purpose.

While Oxford's global findings suggest overall mental health stability, focusing solely on broader populations overlooks disproportionate suffering among susceptible groups. Teen girls and young female adults, minorities, and the learning disabled show heightened vulnerability not captured in generalized data. Just as COVID risk concentrated in elderly and immunocompromised communities, so too does technology dysfunction target those still developing neurological coping or with marginalized identities.

For them, social media clearly multiplies challenges already exacerbated since 2020. Eating disorders in youth spiked over pandemic isolation and heightened appearance perfectionism online. A Stanford study this September found teen girls on platforms centering visual content like Instagram suffered much sharper declines in life satisfaction than boys. Lead researcher Taylor Lorenz labeled the well-documented harm "a huge gender divide that opens up at age 12."

Compounding existing social hierarchies, critics say Instagram and TikTok algorithmically maximize appearance-based anxieties by profiling insecurities and flooding feeds with idealized beauty standards known to diminish self-worth for those not meeting them. "These companies have prioritized their growth over the wellbeing of an entire generation," said former Facebook executive Brian Boland after resigning last year. He now advocates heavier regulation to curb business models directly monetizing teenage body issues.

Likewise, conspiracy theories and misinformation prey on psychological biases, flourishing among groups historically denied truth or power. QAnon support skews towards Americans without college educations, Pew Research found, while anti-vaccine posts gain traction among marginalized communities exploited by grifters. On sites amplifying outrage, harms concentrate among vulnerable segments rather than evenly distributing across users.

But bespoke solutions require bespoke data platform transparency alone enables. Last April legislation proposed requiring social media companies detail algorithmic processes fueling toxic content. It demands transparency around key drivers of user behaviors from enragement to eating disorders to self-harm in order to curb business models thriving off dysfunction.

Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen herself advocates similar openness to empower oversight. In a 2021 60 Minutes interview she accused CEO Mark Zuckerberg of refusing access to retain growth-centric systems regardless of documented damages disproportionately affecting minority and female youth. A lack of moral leadership prioritizes profit over people, she said, necessitating strong regulatory andresearch guardrails.

Yet legislative efforts stall against lobbying might, leaving external researchers blocked from the very usage statistics needed to guide protections for vulnerable digital natives. Biden officials hope European allies might compel data sharing under threat of market lockout, circumventing domestic political inertia. But cooperation remains unlikely, risking whole generations lost navigating largely uncharted waters without societal safeguards.

So Oxford's report lands as but one salvo in intensifying efforts prying open Big Tech black boxes to secure accountability around managing youth wellness. Justice supports transparency even at cost of reputation or returns - moral conscience and the greater good should guide supposed industry leaders claiming to connect the world. Only sincerely addressing threats they knowingly enabled offers atonement for damages already done.

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