John Callery is the senior vice president of technology at The Trevor Project.
The debate around social media’s impact on mental health is hardly new, but the conversation has recaptured the world’s attention in light of reports this fall that suggest Facebook has been well aware of the toxic mental health consequences of its platforms for teens.
While this data — and the knowledge that Facebook ignored these concerns — is troubling, understanding social media’s impact on mental health isn’t all that simple. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that social media can offer safe, affirming spaces and connections for young people on the journey to discover themselves and their identities.
These benefits are too often pushed aside while the dark consequences of social media rage on. The fact is that today’s popular social networking platforms, like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and more, are designed with monetization as a top priority. At their core, these apps encourage excessive use because more user hours on the app equal more ad support.
While some have responded to the latest backlash by declaring that spaces like Instagram should be strictly reserved for adults, I strongly believe that it’s possible to build a social media environment that is beneficial for teenagers — one that helps them discover themselves and affirm who they are; one that lets them explore their identities freely; and one that comforts them in times of darkness and helps them know they are not alone.
I’m not sure this future can be cultivated by reactive features alone, but there is potential for social media giants to team up with other organizations and nonprofits to make social media a safer place for all people.
Creating space for ad-supported and nonprofit social media
While it’s difficult to imagine a world where for-profit social media is not a monopoly, it doesn’t have to be this way. It may not be realistic to eliminate ad-supported social media apps completely, but the tech industry does have an opportunity — and responsibility — to make space for platforms that aren’t dependent on ad dollars.
If the number of views, clicks and ads were secondary to people’s wants and needs, we could revolutionize the way social media platforms work. Together, we could build communities that users can come to on their own terms — whether to escape pressure from other apps, connect with peers or find an accepting place where they can be themselves.
While a handful of ad-free social media spaces already exist — such as Ello and TrevorSpace, The Trevor Project’s social networking site for LGBTQ+ young people — they are much smaller and have fewer features, and therefore may not attract the high volume of users who are accustomed to the bells and whistles that come with social media apps such as Instagram.
There also needs to be a space online for young people to explore their identities anonymously, which is nearly impossible when social media companies prioritize ad support over their users’ mental health and well-being. Advertisers want to know exactly who is spending time on social media so they can target users based on their age, gender, behavior and identities. This becomes especially problematic for young users who want to use social media as a vehicle for figuring out who they are but can’t do so discreetly.
In order to overcome this, the industry as a whole needs to make more investments in social media spaces whose purpose isn’t profit. Over the past few years, tech giants have made incredible strides in product innovation, which could be applied to other sites that give users a safe place to express themselves and find supportive communities.
There’s a time and place for Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and other ad-supported apps, but there’s also a clear need and want for online spaces that aren’t driven by revenue. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and we can work together to make room for both.
With TrevorSpace, for example, we’ve invested in research to better understand our users’ wants and needs, without the added pressure of meeting specific revenue goals. Through this research, we’ve learned that our users look to the internet to explore their identities and value having a safe space where they can express themselves.
What if we used AI for good?
Beyond investing in more nonprofit social media platforms, there’s also an opportunity for tech companies to apply their leading-edge AI developments to improve the user experience on social media and alleviate some of the mental health stressors caused by spending too much time online.
Social media sites currently use machine learning to inform algorithms that encourage people to spend more time online, but its possibilities extend far beyond that. We know that technology has the power to support people’s mental health instead of exacerbating mental illness, so what if we used AI to give users newfound control over social media?
Imagine if AI could help people find what they really need in a given moment — like guiding users to content that makes them laugh when they want to laugh or cry when they want to cry, facilitating connections between like-minded users that build positive relationships, or suggesting resources that give them skills or knowledge that positively impact their life.
The majority of social media apps today use AI to determine our feeds, “for you” pages and timelines for us. However, if we instead used AI to let people guide their own journeys on social media, we could foster a fundamentally different emotional experience — one that supported their wants and needs instead of simply monopolizing their time and attention.
This sounds like a no-brainer, and some may even believe this is already happening. However, as recently bolstered by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen’s testimony, this is simply not how the content we see is curated in the current hands of social media leaders. That must change.
Thanks to unprecedented innovations and research in social media, we have the technology needed to create sites that are conducive to our well-being; it’s just a matter of investing time and resources in developing them and creating space for nonprofit apps to coexist with major ad-supported apps.
Looking ahead, I see the potential for social media companies to partner with nonprofit companies to develop AI that gives users control over the content they see and how they interact with it, but it would take major time, investment and collaboration from both parties. It would also require social media giants to be OK with making room for much-needed alternative apps in the space.
Making social media safer and healthier for all people is a goal that many nonprofits, including The Trevor Project, are dedicated to realizing, and we would greatly benefit from social media companies’ help making it happen.