The Promise and the Peril
Last Wednesday, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned UK social media providers to work towards reducing the harmful effects of social media—especially among children—or face legislation (Donnelly, 2019).
This warning came as the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Prof Dame Sally Davies, released a review on the effects of screen-time on children’s mental health and advised parents to limit their children’s daily use to two hours or less. There wasn’t enough evidence to establish a causal link, but the review found that heavy social media use was associated with a doubling in depressive symptoms among youth. (Donnelly, 2019)
Canada is no stranger to the harms social media can visit on youth if it is misused. Look no further than Nadia Kajouji, Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The online world also holds great promise for mental health.
In a recent interview on TVO’s The Agenda, psychiatrist Dr. David Gratzer was asked how he would characterize the promise of artificial intelligence and digital solutions for mental health care. He replied, “There’s hope that by tapping into the data that we’re generating with our phones, with our computers and with our interactions, maybe we’ll be able to get people better and faster help.” (Gratzer, 2019) e-Mental health is a priority area for the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) precisely because of its potential to improve access (Mental Health Commission of Canada, no date).
Certainly better access is sorely needed. According to the MHCC, one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem this year (MHCC, 2013, p. 1). In his blog, Why the future of psychiatry could be digital, Dr. Gratzer cites one study that found only 13 per cent of Canadians with depression have access to psychotherapy, a treatment of choice (2019).
Many of Gratzer’s patients already use apps to get information on their illnesses, as medication reminders, or to track their mood over time. And now people are increasingly looking to online therapy. It’s low-cost and, when done right, can be as effective as face-to-face care, he writes. (Gratzer, 2019)
Take Woebot for example. It’s a free therapy chatbot and app for depression and anxiety. It encourages users to engage in mental health practices every day and teaches cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques in the moment, as needed. The app has been proven to reduce symptoms of depression by 28% and symptoms of anxiety by 38% after only four weeks of therapy says psychologist Alison Darcy, Founder and CEO of Woebot Labs and Adjunct Professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019)
But it’s buyer beware when it comes to picking a mental health app cautions Gratzer. Of the hundreds of depression apps, only a quarter of them meet basic quality standards (Gratzer, 2019). And popularity is no guarantee of effectiveness. Many of the most popular mindfulness apps are not the ones that work best (There’s an app for that, 2019). Darcy agrees that the best mental health apps are not built on persuasive tech that keeps your coming back for more. Rather, good mental health apps, like Woebot, typically rely on brief daily exposures of 5-10 minutes each. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019)
Diagnosis and prediction of illness
It’s early days yet, but according to Gratzer, in the future we may be able to tap into Facebook posts and tweets to identify early signs of emerging illness. “It may be we can gather that information—information which would be pretty invisible to providers like me—we could harness that information and come back with a diagnosis long before a person is even sad.” (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019).
He points to one study that analyzed the data of 638 Facebook users and was able to predict future depression diagnoses as much as three months before it appeared in patient medical records as a diagnosed condition (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019).
Ability to identify communities at risk of suicide
I recall a meeting I attended with former Health Minister Jane Philpott a few years back. She expressed her frustration at our inability to identify communities like Attiwapiskat who are at risk of cluster suicides so we could deploy resources early and avoid needless deaths. It seems Philpott’s wish has come true.
Polly is an artificial intelligence (AI) forecaster developed by Advanced Symbolics Inc. Using aggregate, anonymised social media data Polly can detect, predict and prescribe changes in human behaviour. (Mental Health: There’s an app for that, 2019). Consider, this AI accurately projected Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the last Ontarian election results (Beaulieu, 2018).
Working with researchers at the University of Ottawa, Polly has now learned to predict when a community is at high risk of experiencing a rash of suicides says Erin Kelly, President and CEO of Advanced Symbolics Inc.
Watch this video to learn more about Woebot, Polly or the potential of digital media to predict, diagnose and treat mental illness. Mental Health: There’s An App for That, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, TVO, January 28, 2019.
Digital media can also help reduce the stigma of mental illness. Journalism professor Gavin Adamson studied how people share mental health and illness news online. He found people in Canada tend to share positive mental health stories about recovery and interventions on social media and typically don’t share negative stories that linked crime and violence to mental illness. Stories that link mental illness with violence and crime are quite common in traditional media (Adamson, 2016).
A solution for social isolation
One of the often touted benefits of social media is how it can reduce social isolation. It can overcome distance and disability barriers and help you stay connected to family and friends. It can also help you find like-minded communities to share ideas or give you emotional support to cope with difficulties you’re facing, whether that be a mental illness or a child with a rare disease.
Too much can lead to social isolation
Social media can cut both ways when it comes to social isolation. One U.S. report suggests that too much time spent on social media can make people lonelier. It examined 200 adult users of Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr and found that those who spent more than two hours per day on social media had double the chance of experiencing social isolation. The study wasn’t able to determine whether socially isolated people were more likely to use these apps or if their use of apps caused their social isolation. (US psychologists claim social media, 2017)
The link between social media and low self-esteem has been made by numerous studies. Envy seems to be at the root of the problem. In her blog, Mental Health and the Effects of Social Media, Allison Abrams highlights a study of Facebook users which measured the effects of Facebook on mental health. It found, “regular use could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.” But in the case where Facebook was used primarily to stay connected and did not trigger feelings of envy, there was a positive overall effect on the user’s mental well-being.(2017)
Why are we drawn to social media?
It seems social media lights up the areas of the brain typically involved when someone engages in rewarding behaviours such as eating chocolate or winning money. Using brain scans, the UCLA study found that this reward circuitry was activated when teenagers saw large numbers of “likes” on their own photos or that of their peers. (Wolpert, 2016)
How to engage in a healthy way
The UK is attacking this issue at the highest level. Whether it will be done voluntarily, or their hand will be forced by legislation, social media providers are being asked to change the ways sites are built in the hopes of removing “addictive capabilities” which keep users hooked. This means getting rid of functions like “auto-play” where content runs on a continuous loop, “you might like” nudges towards particular videos or games and praise for regularly logging in. (Donnelly, 2019)
Measures to effectively verify the age of users, to generate age-appropriate ads and to remove harmful content such as bullying and self-harm image are also part of government demands. In theory, UK children under 13 can’t register for social media accounts. (Donnelly, 2019)
But you can take measures to safeguard your social mental mental health at the individual level. In Canada, eMentalHealth.ca has a social media screening tool you can use to see if your use is problematic and an information sheet for families which provides lots of great advice on mitigating the risks of social media.
Social media is here to stay. And like most young technologies we’re still figuring out, as a society and as individuals, how to harness its power while minimizing its potentially harmful effects.
Do you think your use of social media or that of your child might be problematic? Screen your use with the tools in the above paragraph and share your thoughts on what you find.
Media and Mental Health: The Promise and the Peril
Facebook Post: (To be posted as a link post to blog)
Your social posts could help mend your mental health?
[Photo of lead image for blog-a phone with Twitter and Facebook app showing]
Mental Health and Social Media
The Promise and the Peril
Abrams, A. (2017, March 5). Mental health and the effects of social media [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201703/mental-health-and-the-effects-social-media
Adamson, G. & Donaldson, L. & Whitley, R. (2016). Sharing Recovery Stories. Digital Journalism. 5. 1-16. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307629642_Sharing_Recovery_Stories
Beaulieu, C. (2018, November 26). Advanced Symbolics Inc & AI : Working together for a better social future [Website]. Retrieved from https://smbp.uwaterloo.ca/2018/11/advanced-symbolics-inc-ai-working-together-for-a-better-social-future/
Donnelly, L. (2019, February 7). Social media fuels ‘addiction’: Chief Medical Officer backs duty of care. The Telegraph. Retrieved February 8 from https://socialmedia.einnews.com/article__detail/475851166-social-media-fuels-addiction-chief-medical-officer-backs-duty-of-care?vcode=XIbw
eMentalHealth.ca. (2015, July 13). Unplug (from Technology) and Connect: Keeping Families Strong in a Wired World [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.ementalhealth.ca/Ottawa-Carleton/Unplug-from-Technology-and-Connect-Keeping-Families-Strong-in-a-Wired-World/index.php?m=article&ID=26722
Gratzer, D. (2019, January 29). The future of psychiatry promises to be digital – from apps that track our mood to smartphone therapy [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/the-future-of-psychiatry-promises-to-be-digital-from-apps-that-track-your-mood-to-smartphone-therapy-110489
Mental Health Commission of Canada (no date). e-Mental health [Webpage]. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/English/what-we-do/e-mental-health
Mental Health Commission of Canada (2013). Making the case for investing in mental health in Canada. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhealthcommission.ca/sites/default/files/2016-06/Investing_in_Mental_Health_FINAL_Version_ENG.pdf
“Mental health: There’s an app for that”. (2019, January 28). TVO. Retrieved February 8 from https://www.tvo.org/video/programs/the-agenda-with-steve-paikin/mental-health-theres-an-app-for-that
US psychologists claim social media ‘increases loneliness’. [No author]. (2017, March 6). BBC Newsbeat. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/39176828/us-psychologists-claim-social-media-increases-loneliness
Wolpert, S. (2016, May 31). The teenage brain on social media: The findings in a new UCLA study shed light on the influence of peers and much more [Webpage] Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/the-teenage-brain-on-social-media