Stigmatize Social Media | Samuel D. James
For a few hours on October 4, the developed world experienced a temporary increase in emotional health and psychological peace. The reason? Facebook crashed. A major error in the social networking company’s servers plunged its app, along with Instagram, into the digital abyss. Despite some tantalizing predictions of impending doom for the unpopular company, Facebook fixed the issue and everything was back to normal.
This is good news for Mark Zuckerberg, but bad news for millions of his younger clients. For teenage girls in particular, the “normal” to maximum consumption of social media comes at a huge personal cost. Watchers of Gen Z teens and young adults have known for some time that social media is strongly correlated with negative social and psychological effects, but a the Wall Street newspaper last month’s survey reinforced this point. According to corporate documents obtained by the Newspaper, Facebook management has been aware for some time that its main user demographic, young women, reports significant mental health consequences of heavy Instagram use.
Many of Instagram’s worst side effects are body image issues, which seems a painfully obvious danger given the exhibitionist logic of the app. It is impossible to imagine anyone before the mid-2000s thinking that positive social good could come from a website where young girls are encouraged to post pictures of themselves who will compete for “Likes” and compliments (tellingly, that “hot or not” premise was crucial for Facebook’s debut in Zuckerberg’s dorm at Harvard). Instagram’s triumph in a supposedly feminist era is a remarkable testament to the liturgical power of internet technology in society.
Instagram is not the only offender. Facebook’s cynical maneuvers between media organization and personal network produced a very poisonous information. Twitter’s algorithm is finely tuned to match users with content that will elicit the most furious outrage (because negative emotion is more addictive, and therefore more profitable), while TikTok quickly becomes a vehicle for exposing. children with pornography and drug content. The rate at which new research is revealing the moral decay of Silicon Valley flagships is overwhelming. But it is one thing to be convinced of a problem; it is another to know what to do.
Some sort of regulation of the social Internet seems inevitable. In the latest issue of New AtlantisTech critic Nicholas Carr convincingly argues that companies like Twitter and Facebook can and should be regulated as public “broadcasters”, subject to rules and oversight similar to those of radio. Likewise, Ross Douthat recently suggested treating social media apps as “adult entertainment,” with age barriers and other means of restricting use to adults. The least promising legislative response is, unfortunately, the most likely: laws that target only issues of “fairness” and “censorship”, but leave the broader epistemological structure of social media intact.
There is a better option. Regulation is a good idea, but the wisest, most plausible and also the most effective option is not law, but stigma. Society must brand not only Facebook and Instagram, but the social internet itself.
It wouldn’t necessarily destroy or limit the web. On the contrary, it would recalibrate cultural assumptions to better match reality. Instead of viewing the Web primarily as an intellectual space – a neutral repository of valuable information – educators and parents would recognize that the Web is fundamentally hostile to robust thought patterns. Instead of “digital literacy”, the technology education would focus on digital discernment. Unlimited student use of the web would be seen less as an essential skill and more as a precarious life choice, akin to unlimited hours in front of the television. More importantly, social stigma around the Internet would create rhetorical and practical barriers between minors and smartphones: warnings from telephone operators (think of a warning from the Surgeon General, but for apps); information campaigns targeting parents with data on adolescent mental health and smartphone use; and, as Douthat suggested, age-based restrictions, backed up by measures such as credit card requirements or carrier account holder permissions.
If creating such a cultural stigma seems impossible, it’s only because the positive good of maximum web access has been assumed for so long. As television developed and its content diversified, America’s elites instituted regulations which, while often extensive, still enjoy wide public support. No one believes that HBO’s late-night programming should air on PBS at 10 a.m., and even in our vulgar public square, there are still lines that the big networks don’t cross. The restrictions on behavior that we allow, however, are not revolutionary: alcohol, cigarettes, voting, and many other activities are restricted to middle-aged people, and both law and custom dictate. Technological innovation has made the Internet both ambient and granular: everything, all the time, formatted to fit in the privacy of your pocket. Such an immersive and formative support requires renewed social mores.
The power of stigma lies in its organic nature. As families brave mockery to make counter-cultural choices regarding smartphones and social media, the wisdom of restraint will manifest in healthier and more present children and adults. Many will have to be brought in slowly, aided by persuasive books such as The Tech-Wise family, the shallows, and 12 ways your phone changes you. Effective and redemptive social stigma doesn’t need to wait for consensus from a dysfunctional ruling class. As Roger Scruton observed: “Stigma is not an act of aggression but a sign that we care about the lives and actions of our neighbors. It expresses the conscience of others, the desire to have a good opinion and the impulse to defend the social norms that make judgment possible.
Samuel D. James is associate editor of acquisitions at Crossway Books and publishes a regular newsletter titled Knowledge.
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