This article contains discussion of suicide and self-harm
In 2014, the Samaritans launched what seemed like an innovative new project: Radar. Designed to provide what the charity described as an “online safety net”, users could sign up to Radar to receive updates on the content of other people’s tweets, with emails sent out based on a list of key phrases meant to detect whether someone was feeling distressed.
In principle, this meant people could keep an eye on friends who were vulnerable: if they missed a tweet where somebody said they felt suicidal or wanted to self-harm, for example, Radar would send it on, in theory increasing the likelihood that someone might get help or support.
In practice, however, things weren’t so simple. Some pointed out that the app could be used for stalking or harassment, allowing abuse to be targeted during someone’s lowest point. There were false positives, too — “I want to kill myself”, for example, is often used as hyperbole by people who aren’t actually distressed at all. And others felt it was an invasion of privacy: their tweets might be on a public platform, they argued, but they were personal expression. They hadn’t consented to being used as part of a programme like Radar, no matter how well meaning it was.
Samaritans shut down Radar just a week after launch. But since then, the use of social media data in mental health research — including tweets, Facebook and Instagram posts, and blogs — has only increased. Researchers hope that the volume of data social media offers will bring important insights into mental health. But many users worry about how their data is being used.
In basic terms, online status indicators convey availability: whether someone is on or offline, or when they last logged into a particular app. But if you’ve ever anxiously awaited a response from a prospective partner or suspected your friend might be ignoring you, you’ll be painfully aware of just how much weight that indicator can actually hold.
Do you often spend time with your friends in order to forget about personal problems? Do you think about your friends even when you’re not with them? Have you even gone as far as ignoring your family to spend time with your friends?
If you answered yes to these questions, you might fit the criteria for “offline friend addiction”, according to a new scale described in a preprint on PsyArxiv. Except, of course, that this notion is ridiculous. How can we be addicted to socialising, the fulfilment of one of our basic human needs?
Well, that’s pretty much the point of the new paper, written with tongue firmly in cheek. But behind it is a serious argument: although a scale for offline friend addiction is clearly absurd, there’s another, similar concept for which such scales have already been developed — social media addiction.
Breaking up is never easy, particularly when you’re confronted with memories of happier times. A smell, an old photograph, a note somebody left you — weeks or even months after a break-up and you can still be reminded of your ex-partner, whether you like it or not.
On social media, this can be even worse. If you’re still friends with your ex, you’re likely to still see their posts on your feed; if you’re not, you can still rub salt into the wound by checking their profile anyway. ‘On this Day’ features are also notoriously bad for bringing up unhappy memories at the worst possible time.
According to anew studypublished inProceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, we also see our exes so much because of the so-called “social periphery” — the networks of people we know tangentially through our ex-partners. So why not design an algorithm that causes us less pain? The new work suggests that this could be the answer to our online break-up woes.
Scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, it can be easy to feel drawn in by the people you follow. Whether it’s the brands they’re buying, the things they’re doing or what they’re wearing, it’s not uncommon to want to follow suit — they’re called “influencers” for a reason, after all.
However, the visibility of these features is poor at best — and it remains unclear if the public even wants them in the first place. Now a study in JMIR Mental Health has asked whether the general public would be happy for tech companies to use their social media posts to look for signs of depression. The study found that although the public sees the benefit of using algorithms to identify at-risk individuals, privacy concerns still surround the use of this technology.
Is it really believable that Hillary Clinton operated a child sex ring out of a pizza shop — or that Donald Trump was prepared to deport his wife, Melania, after a fight at the White House? Though both these headlines seem obviously false, they were shared millions of times on social media.
The sharing of misinformation — including such blatantly false “fake news” — is of course a serious problem. According to a popular interpretation of why it happens, when deciding what to share, social media users don’t care if a “news” item is true or not, so long as it furthers their own agenda: that is, we are in a “post-truth” era. One recent study suggested, for example, that knowing something is false has little impact on the likelihood of sharing. However, a new paper by a team of researchers from MIT and the University of Regina in Canada further challenges that bleak view.
The studies reported in the paper, available as a preprint on PsyArXiv, suggest that in fact, social media users do care whether an item is accurate or not — they just get distracted by other motives (such as wanting to secure new followers or likes) when deciding what to share. As part of their study, the researchers also showed that a simple intervention that targeted a group of oblivious Twitter users increased the quality of the news that they shared. “Our results translate directly into a scalable anti-misinformation intervention that is easily implementable by social media platforms,” they write.
From digital detoxes to the recent Silicon Valley fad of “dopamine fasting”, it seems more fashionable than ever to attempt to abstain from consuming digital media. Underlying all of these trends is the assumption that using digital devices — and being on social media in particular — is somehow unhealthy, and that if we abstain, we might become happier, more fulfilled people.
But is there any truth to this belief? When it comes to social media, at least, a new paper in Media Psychology suggests not. In one of the few experimental studies in the field, researchers have found that quitting social media for up to four weeks does nothing to improve our well-being or quality of life.
Does the prospect of taking a “Facebook holiday” fill you with dread as you picture a life of social isolation, or does it sound like an appealing and refreshing chance to change priorities?
A new paper in the Journal of Social Psychology has investigated the psychological effects of taking time off from using Facebook. Given that Facebook helps keep us connected but can also expose us to many social stressors, like envy and gossip, the researchers, led by Eric Vanman at the University of Queensland, expected to find a Facebook break would be associated with a drop in life-satisfaction, but also a reduction in stress levels. Their findings are largely in line with their predictions “[and] consistent with the general ambivalent feelings that may typify most active users about Facebook”. However, the study also features ambiguities and limitations that may leave sceptical readers unconvinced.
Last week, Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker admitted his concerns that, by focusing on social validation, Facebook was designed to exploit “a vulnerability in human psychology”. Added to this, and amidst the current furore around fake news, imagine if adverts on Facebook could be adapted to target your personality, significantly increasing the odds that people like you will click on the ads and then buy the associated products or vote differently in an election. A timely study in PNAS shows just how easy and effective it is to target web users according to their personality, a technique that the researchers call “psychological persuasion”.