Cyberbullies, sexual predators and mental health pressures are some of the “monsters” facing people of all ages on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, says the UCLan researcher.
Despite this, Professor Janet Read says many people are addicted to the networking platforms. Now the computer science expert, who has led international research into the “dark” side of technology designed to keep us hooked for profits, is advising people how to minimise that potentially dangerous impact.
While acknowledging that all technology has its positives and negatives, Janet, a Professor of Child Computer Interaction, said: “If you’re socially anxious, you’re more likely to become addicted to social media. An interesting thing to ask yourself is: what is it replacing [in your life] and what is it enhancing? Problematic use is if you’re using it instead of doing something else.”
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Here’s a breakdown of how social media can impact various age groups and what you can do about it:
What dangers does it pose to adults?
Many adults become obsessed with social media, which can threaten both their relationships and overall life satisfaction, according to Janet, who researches positive technology design.
It is often used to numb feelings of pain, loneliness or emptiness - whether consciously or unconsciously - which can become a habit.
She added: “If you’re feeling down or lonely, you go on social media to feel better, just like when a child sucks their thumb or you smoke a cigarette. It’s a stimulus. We all do it.
“The algorithms give us more of the same content, so we’re given more stimulation. Often people go on social media because they’re feeling uncomfortable. We’re bad at dealing with discomfort and boredom as a society.”
The “dark design” of social media is like quicksand to vulnerable people with an unfulfilled human need for validation and connection. Likes and shares give people a dopamine or adrenaline rush - a feeling of being high. But as with any dependency, addicted people need to consume more and more in order to reach that same “high”. That’s where design comes in, with features like adverts, algorithms and endless scrolling luring people back to the social apps again and again, promising more of the same content, the same rewards and the same escape from the hardship of their reality.
But spending too much time online can leave users disconnected from other people in the non-virtual world, which in turn can make them feel unhappier and more vulnerable. And so the cycle of addiction deepens.
In particular, social media obsession can create a destructive tension in romantic and family relationships, says Janet.
She added: “In many relationships, there are three people: me, you and social media. In any family, you’ll see a conflict about phones. It gets in the middle of relationships.
“The other thing is FOMO [fear of missing out], particularly for women who don’t want to miss out on other [non-romantic] relationships."
How can people protect their close relationships from the effects of social media dependency?
Janet advises couples and families to talk about their concerns and discuss boundaries around phone use.
"Ask yourself, really honestly: do I want to change my social media habits and why?
"If you don’t have good motivation to do it, then you won’t. It doesn't matter what your reason is but you need a good one. If you don’t have a reason, then maybe it’s not the right moment.
"Then, imagine what you would like your relationship to look like. If you don’t want to change your habits, the other question to ask is whether your social media use is negatively affecting people in your family."
If yes, Janet advises to loop back to the original question, albeit slightly altered: do I need to change my habits?
"You might not want to but if they are impacting others then go back and consider changing them," she said.
"The other thing to do is think about any other similar habits you have."
To use social media more mindfully, the professor suggests reflecting on your use at the end of the day, how it makes you feel and how you benefited from it.
Regarding screen time, she added: “Make rules that make sense for your family. Normally, don’t bring screens to the table."
How does phone addiction affect men?
While women worry more often about relationships stalling, it is men who seem to struggle the most with compulsive phone use due to game playing, Janet says.
“There are studies that suggest more addiction in men, although it's not conclusive - certainly men in families have been reported as 'scrolling phones' while the women take care of the kids.
“This is a convenience addiction to some extent - it could be argued that women would do the same if other roles were reversed.
“It's important to frame this against the general 'attack' on many 'male traditional behaviours' - many men feel emasculated and may find the thrill/tension/edginess that was biologically their lot for many thousands of years in some phone activity.
“That may also make it hard for them to drop their phones - there isn't a good 'man' thing on offer…no wood to chop, no beasts to chase down, no hard labour to be done.
“In South Korea, they have had classes for (mainly men) to get folk off their phone addictions."
How can men (and women) break free from phone or social media fixation?
Janet advises people to reflect on their social media behaviours: do you post; do you watch and consume; or both?
This can help you understand your motivation for using the apps. Are you lonely and seeking connection; feeling insecure and needing validation; feeling overwhelmed and needing escape? Or is it because of social pressure?
"I think mindful social media use is the key,” she said.
"What would you be doing if you weren’t on the apps?
"It's important to consider that the addiction is not simple - there is the platform (e.g. Facebook), the device (e.g. iPhone), the product (e.g. news stream, messages) and the action (e.g. scrolling etc).
"Breaking any of these helps break the habit so deleting the app is one action but so is putting the phone out of reach, so is occupying the hands in another action.
“Take a week off - the device, the platform, the product - and see how that feels.”
How does social media negatively affect young parents?
Online social comparisons can wield a detrimental blow to the mental health of new parents, the professor claims.
Following unrealistic parenting accounts or being in social media groups where there is pressure to compare parenting styles can reinforce feelings of guilt that you’re not “good enough” as a mum or dad.
“The pressure on parents is immense. You’re constantly thinking you’re doing everything wrong and not giving your children the best chances in life - basically from the minute you leave the hospital with your new-born - because it seems people are doing better than you on social media. That can be quite detrimental.
“Someone feeling vulnerable, lonely and unsupported can get support in social media groups but it’s more non-productive from my own experience.”
Instead, Janet advises people to seek out and follow relatable accounts.
Then, she said: “Share them with your friends to make the Internet a better place.
“Parenting is really hard and it’s probably much more important to make real friends in the school playground, at the library etc where you will get to know folk in their good and bad days, as opposed to the filtered.
"A good test is to look back at 'your own' posts over the last month and see how many 'disasters' you posted - probably very few as we all want to 'look good' on social media. Thus, when you look you are seeing all those well-dressed stories.
“This is my own tip...when you look on social media to see what other parents are doing, only allow yourself to look once you have put on your makeup and done your hair - that will remind you that what you are seeing is not the everyday."
How can social media harm children?
Revenge porn, cyberbullying, body image pressures and fake news on social media can be devastating for youngsters, says Janet, who designs and evaluates children’s technologies.
“When you get down to teenagers, you have a lot of online dating, bullying and people threatening to post intimate pictures of their ex,” she said.
"Girls see filtered images and think that’s what women really look like."
In fact, Facebook’s own research reveals Instagram worsens body-image issues for one in three teenage girls and is more dangerous than other social media apps like TikTok and Snapchat as it is centred around social comparison about people’s bodies and lifestyles.
Indeed, seven in ten (71 percent of) females aged seven to 21 experienced harmful online content like misinformation, hate speech, body image pressures, harassment and bullying during the pandemic, a 2021 Girlguiding report reveals.
A third (33 percent) of 17 to 21-year-olds received unwanted sexual images and nearly a quarter (24 percent) were cyberbullied.
“Parents have mindlessly walked into social media," Janet said.
"They are at a loss. They are poorly equipped to deal with online issues: they don’t understand or know what their children are doing."
How can parents protect their children from online harms?
Parents can shield their children from the blow of social media’s nastier inner workings by having honest conversations with them about the content they consume and how it affects them, Janet explains.
“If there are any baddies, it’s not Facebook. If children know Facebook’s purpose is to make money and keep you there in order to see adverts, then they can make more informed decisions.
“One option to keep children safe is to put them within a fence but sooner or later they will have to go out and meet monsters. A better approach is to have negotiated boundaries.
"If you’re prevented from doing something, it becomes more attractive to you. And then when you’re exposed to it as an adult, you’re dealing with it on your own, because you’re past the point of being parented. Being given resources and messages when you’re little in a way you can understand has to be better than putting people behind gates."
And, she added: “Kids learn by example, so change has to happen sideways. So many parents carry their phone from room to room. Are they prepared to make some changes themselves?
“Little ones see you using your phone. That’s their first introduction to the virtual world so it’s important to set a good example of phone use. In a mindful world, you wouldn’t answer your phone at the table. Probably the most productive thing any parent can do is to ask what example they’re setting to people in their house.
“The second stage is to help children understand what it means to be connected to the online world, and that people can contact them. Games are portals nowadays to the online world. Discord [a gaming chat network] is a big iceberg. Kids are moving onto games platforms, and mums don’t know what they’re doing on it.”
Regarding screen time, she added: “Make rules that make sense for your family. Normally, don’t bring screens to the table.
“When your child gets to seven to nine-years-old, then you can set access perimeters but also have conversations with them about what they’re seeing on social media. Children need to be savvy about what could be fake news. Talk about how the content is making them feel, like filtered images. Is that a feeling they want to have and is that what they want to be doing with their time?
“By 10-12, some children will have a sensible attitude. But we haven’t figured out what to say to them in that middle bit.”
Janet advises following these social media account for relatable examples of parenting.