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Should social media carry health warnings?

By Mal Fletcher - posted Thursday, 28 December 2017

The social media juggernaut Facebook has reportedly acknowledged, albeit perhaps reluctantly, that engagement with its platform may potentially affect cognition or emotional wellbeing.

Faced with mounting international research revealing harmful side-effects, including addiction and depression, some social media groups have arguably acted as tobacco companies once did when they were confronted with claims about addiction and cancer. They have shrugged off the criticism with the notion that the evidence is inconclusive.

Now, in Facebook's case, a former executive has robustly touted the dangers. The company has offered a novel response. It says that while there is potential for unhealthy effects, the answer is yet more engagement online.


To overcome any potential negative effects, it suggests, one must spend even more time engaging on its platform, particularly with good friends, exchanging positive messages.

In the opinion of this writer, such a response shows a disregard for the already sizeable body of research into the dopamine-inducing impact of social media engagement.

Facebook is by no means alone in this. Though some of the research has often focused on Facebook, because it is the world's largest social media company, the results have been shown to be relevant to other social media platforms.

The research shows that social media activity releases small doses of dopamine, a chemical which is associated with alertness and feelings of pleasure, into the user's brain.

A little shot of this chemical, taken in isolation, may be fine but many small doses taken over time may provide the same cumulative impact as relatively large ones. This may lead to a problematic dependency and even addiction.

Another well documented potential by-product of social media use is feelings of depression and anxiety.


Few people will post their worst performances online for all the world to see. People tend to post what makes them and their situation present well to an audience - even if the audience is just one or two people.

Watching a constant stream of best-moments-or-ideas from multiple senders, whether they're personal friends or not, will slowly erode the confidence of even the most robust ego - perhaps with the exception of the clinically narcissistic or psychopathic ego.

It's high time social media operators fessed up to the impact their creations are potentially having on cognitive processes.

Technology in itself is not the problem. We are not a product of the technologies we use, but of how we choose the use them.

However, those who make money trading in personal data have a concomitant responsibility to their data providers. At the very least, they are ethically duty-bound to be honest and accountable about the potential impacts of their product.

We would be horrified if a drug company was allowed to amass a fortune by selling a product known to encourage any form of addiction or depression, without (at the very least) being required to announce the same on its packaging.

We'd be even more disturbed if the same drug provider offered a remedy that said, "Take more of our drug and you'll be fine."

We should be no less disturbed if social media platforms refuse to appropriately address these same side effects. Perhaps it is time such groups were treated as drug companies and required to carry health warnings.

Instead of offering remedies built on people doing more-of-the-same, Facebook - and arguably other social media companies - should be offering concise, accurate and consistent guidelines about keeping the useage habit in check and in the process protecting relationships and mindsets.

In many ways, these platforms offer a helpful, informative and entertaining service. However, they should be required to acknowledge and mitigate the dangers.

Perhaps social media platforms should feature a caution loosely based on one used by gaambling companies: "BEFORE the fun stops, stop!"

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About the Author

Mal Fletcher is a media social futurist and commentator, keynote speaker, author, business leadership consultant and broadcaster currently based in London. He holds joint Australian and British citizenship.

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