Social media addiction

IF you are one of the many millions on Earth in possession of a social media account, then none of what you are about to read here will be at all surprising to you. Social media platforms like Meta or X are designed to lure us to them and then keep us hooked.

The longer we scroll, and we are scrolling more and more, the greater the number of advertisements we will glance at and thus the greater the revenue the platforms will earn. There is no small irony in the fact that this scrolling is fuelled not by what the platforms offer us but the proliferation of details of our own lives.

In promising us the opportunity to present ourselves to the world, or at least some version of it represented by the few hundred ‘friends’ or ‘followers’, social media platforms have weaponised human curiosity and the human predilection for exhibitionism.

These critiques of social media platforms and their manipulation of our attention are not particularly new. Many of them were detailed in a 2021 report that looked closely into the tactics utilised by social media giant Meta on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of research has revealed that the easiest and most sought-after targets of social media platforms are young people whose developing brains are most easily manipulated and who have fewer defence mechanisms against the machinations of social media algorithms.

It follows then that young people are the most vulnerable to being addicted to social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. In turn, these young people, many of them barely adolescents, develop poor mental health owing to these addictions.

The data to substantiate this was the subject of a 2021 exposé by the Wall Street Journal which found that Meta’s own research revealed, for instance, that 13.5 per cent of teenage girls said that Instagram “makes thoughts of suicide worse”. And 17pc of teenage girls had reported that it made eating disorders worse as well.

Even though there are laws in place that should prevent children under 13 from having social media accounts, most know how to get around this ban either with or without the knowledge and consent of their parents. Similarly, time limits such as the 60-minute default instituted by TikTok can also be ignored easily when children enter a passcode.

Frustrated by this state of affairs and what might be characterised as a lack of seriousness in dealing with the issue among social media giants themselves, a bipartisan group of attorneys general are now suing Meta.

According to a complaint that is being brought by 33 different states, the social media platform is liable for creating social media addiction and consequently very poor mental health among children and young people.

According to the complaint, the social media platform has deliberately misled the public about the tactics used to create social media addictions among young people.

Even while deploying these tactics, social media platforms like Meta may try to gloss over just how dangerous it can be for young people to spend hours and hours on these platforms because they are designed to keep them hooked and addicted.

Extra vigilance is required if online platforms are to be prevented from creating negative repercussions for youngsters.

In this first-of-a-kind effort the 33 states that have signed on to the lawsuit are demanding restitution and financial damages from Meta for what is seen as an underhand tactic.

Where other strategies to stop the targeting of young brains may not have worked perhaps the threat of huge financial losses if the lawsuit succeeds in its purpose, could be the key to finally stopping the exploitation of young minds in this way.

Meta’s Facebook and Instagram platforms are widely popular in Pakistan as well. Even rudimentary cellphones often have Facebook and Instagram applications on them. This means that an inordinately large number of Pakistani children also have social media accounts.

Despite this, few Pakistani parents pay enough attention to the amount of time that their children are spending on these platforms, and are not asking whether that amount of time is negatively affecting the mental health of their offspring.

Children everywhere are susceptible to feelings of unbelonging or alienation because they see others their age having more fun or having more friends than themselves and Pakistan is no different.

If unchecked these feelings of alienation or exclusion can create lifelong problems with self-esteem, mood regulation and a general sense of well-being being affected.

If this lawsuit is successful it may lead to the company being held accountable for the many mental health challenges being confronted by kids who are addicted to social media platforms.

Even if such lawsuits are not possible in every country where large online platforms operate, forcing the company to be more open about its tactics and the targeting of young people may provide a much clearer picture as to just how children are hooked on spending hours upon hours scrolling through their social media feeds.

Parents who allow their children to keep cellphones and have social media accounts must realise that extra vigilance is required if these gadgets are to be stopped from having a very negative impact on the lives of children. The need to be accepted and to be popular in their friend groups is far more acute among teenagers than it is perhaps for any other age group.

It is the exploitation of this need, coupled with the envy or depression that comes from not having many friends or being left out of social events, that pose a threat to the well-being of these young people.

Endless scrolling late into the night may not seem like a particularly ominous activity but it is just this harmless appearance that has pernicious consequences, which in turn, are creating a generation that confronts more mental health challenges than any that have come before it.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

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