(KTTC) — Billions of dollars are spent every year to get people to download and use social media apps. Hours and hours are spent by users each day connecting with friends or passively scrolling through news feeds.
In an environment increasingly brightened with the glow of phone screens, the question of what social media does to mental well-being, particularly to the most vulnerable members of our population, demands immediate answers.
Facebook is currently piloting a limited test in Australia, hiding number that shows the amount of reactions on a post. Users can still see the reactions on their own posts, but their friends will not be able to see how many reactions the posts have received, a Facebook spokesperson said. Similar tests have been piloted on Instagram earlier this year.
“We are running a limited test where like, reaction and video view counts are made private across Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson said in a news release. “We will gather feedback to understand whether this change will improve people’s experiences.”
Facebook said the hope is that this change will allow people to feel more comfortable expressing themselves, and focus less on how many likes or reactions they get on their posts.
“As tech companies engage in a conversation about ethical design, [hiding the number of likes] is something that they’re testing out,” according to Erin Walsh, a Minneapolis-based Social Scientist who is also a co-founder of Spark & Stitch Institute. Spark & Stitch is an organization that works to help parents better understand their children and help build better connections in a digital-age.
Walsh said when receiving positive feedback, such as likes on a social media post, people receive a dopamine release that causes them to feel happier. During mid-adolescence, there is a peak in reward sensitivity, meaning that positive reaction is heightened, she said. However, not receiving positive feedback, such as making a post that receives relatively few likes, can also have a greater negative impact on an adolescent’s self-image.
“[That] can lead to some young people to sink into that social comparison that ‘I’m less than, I’m not good enough,’” Walsh said, adding that adolescents are also more peer-oriented, so affirmation from their peers is important to them.
The question of whether social media causes depression and anxiety among young people is far more nuanced than one might assume, Walsh said, and tends to depend on when and how the user is using social media, and what interactions they have when using the sites.
For example, Walsh said some studies have found that using social media to have positive social interactions with friends and strengthen real-life relationships can boost a sense of being seen and valued. However, she added that hyper-passive use of using social media is associated with anxiety and depression, such as in a case where a teen comes home from school and just starts passively scrolling.
Research also shows that teens who have screen-free time to connect with a caring adult, screen-free time to sleep and screen-free time to focus have many “protective factors” for their mental health, Walsh said.
Walsh said social media can negatively impact mental health when used late at night, partly due to impacting sleep schedule but also because vulnerability to social comparison peaks late at night, when emotional regulation is exhausted.
A 2018 Pew Research study found that 81 percent of U.S. teens feel more connected to friends due to social media use. However, the study also found that 43 percent feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good.
Walsh said it may be interesting to see if what people post to social media changes if they’re not concerned with the number of likes they receive.
The question still remains: Will taking away the likes count make social media less emotionally volatile for users?
“I don’t think anything is going to have a single technical fix,” Walsh said. “I don’t think we’re going to take away the likes and suddenly see a dramatic shift in self-esteem among teens in the United States.
However, she added that she finds it exciting to see conversations about promoting digital well-being and believes that this conversation is something we should all be engaging in.
“I will be interested to see a way in which we human beings figure out a way to affirm each other anyway,” Walsh said.