Reducing Social Media’s Negative Influence on Emerging Adults’ Mental Well-Being with a Design-Focused, Neuroscience Approach
"No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth." These were the words of former Facebook Vice President Chamath Palihapitiya who publicly expressed his regret in a 2017 interview over his role in co-creating Facebook. Palihapitiya shared that social media is ripping apart the social fabric of society and he also sounded the alarm regarding social media’s unavoidable global impact. He is only one of social media’s countless critics. The more disturbing issue resides in the empirical evidence supporting such notions. At least 95% of adolescents own a smartphone and spend an average time of two to four hours a day on social media. Moreover, 91% of 16-24-year-olds use social media, yet youth rate Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter as the worst social media platforms. However, the social, clinical, and neurodevelopment ramifications of using social media regularly are only beginning to emerge in research. Early research findings show that social media platforms trigger anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other negative mental health effects. These negative mental health symptoms are commonly reported by individuals from of 18-25-years old, a unique period of human development known as emerging adulthood. Although emerging adulthood is characterized by identity exploration, unbounded optimism, and freedom from most responsibilities, it also serves as a high-risk period for the onset of most psychological disorders. Despite social media’s adverse impacts, it retains its utility as it facilitates identity exploration and virtual socialization for emerging adults. Investigating the “user-centered” design and neuroscience underlying social media platforms can help reveal, and potentially mitigate, the onset of negative mental health consequences among emerging adults. Effectively deconstructing the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (i.e., hereafter referred to as “The Big Three”) will require an extensive analysis into common features across platforms. A few examples of these design features include: like and reaction counters, perpetual news feeds, and omnipresent banners and notifications surrounding the user’s viewport. Such social media features are inherently designed to stimulate specific neurotransmitters and hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol. Identifying such predacious social media features that unknowingly manipulate and highjack emerging adults’ brain chemistry will serve as a first step in mitigating the negative mental health effects of today’s social media platforms. A second concrete step will involve altering or eliminating said features by creating a social media platform that supports and even enhances mental well-being.