A recent story in British newspapers linked the suicide of a 14-year-old boy to social media use. In 2017, a 12-year-old girl in Miami streamed her suicide live on Facebook.

These and similarly tragic tales have boosted an already fervent debate on the links between social media engagement and mental health.

Mobile phone

PICTURE: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash.

 

"At the very least, social media companies ought to be treated like drug companies. There are clear links now between social media use and a recognised mental condition known as internet addiction."

At 2030Plus, we’ve been reviewing for some years the links between cognitive function and internet involvement. Other, larger research organisations have done likewise. There is little doubt that a growing reliance on digital technology has changed the way our brains work.

Governments are under pressure to act. Last year, the Australian Government opened an investigation into Facebook, the largest and, for many, the most troubling of the new media giants.

The company released, without authorisation, data from 300,000 Australian user accounts to the now defunct Cambridge Analytica. Worldwide, Facebook reportedly compromised the privacy of 87 million accounts in this way.

Meanwhile, Germany’s Federal Cartel Office has looked into punishing Facebook, for gathering data on non-Facebook users, without their knowledge.

In Britain, a government minister has proposed the banning of social media platforms that refuse to remove harmful material from their sites. This on the back of consistent reports about unhealthy or potentially illegal material on YouTube and other platforms.

This sounds laudable, but is the threat of a ban the right approach? After all, huge numbers of people rely on these platforms, as gateways into news and business opportunities, as well as day-to-day communication.

Are there more workable starting points? And is there an opportunity for church leaders to contribute?

At the very least, social media companies ought to be treated like drug companies. There are clear links now between social media use and a recognised mental condition known as internet addiction. 

Drugs are subject to government regulation. When we use a legal drug, whether it’s for our physical or mental health, we can be sure that our government has deemed it safe. The same should apply to social media platforms.

We might also opt for video commercials depicting the potential negative impacts of social media, which must be included on users’ home pages.

Governments certainly need to insist upon proof-of-age on social media accounts. We do this with credit card application and travel booking sites, why not social media?

Requiring proof of identity might help also be useful, especially in reducing the terribly high incidence of trolling and bullying online. Christians working within government, the civil service or social media itself can help argue for these changes.

Recently, Facebook was accused of blocking a British-built app that monitors political interference on Facebook’s platform and its impact on elections. Apparently, some social media groups are happy to practice censorship or editorialising, but only when it suits their interests.

This is a double standard which only governments have the power to challenge. If social media groups want to act like the publishers and news curators of our time, they must accept the concomitant social responsibility.

Some of these companies would like us to believe that they’re still just maverick organisations, a part of the wild west of the internet. But these groups are now multi-national corporations. They rake in huge profits from advertisers and by selling our data. They often pay comparatively little tax.

Some social media companies will not, of their own accord, accept responsibility for the social impacts of their sites. Outside regulation is a must. Christians in media can promote this cause.

"New laws are not the only answer, though. There are huge opportunities here for educators and for church leaders."

New laws are not the only answer, though. There are huge opportunities here for educators and for church leaders.

Some school districts in the US now use the Digital Passport interactive game series. It is designed to help primary school children learn how to engage with digital technology in healthy ways.

In the UK, individual schools sometimes include social media training in their curricula. However, a more linked-up approach is needed, covering the breadth of a child’s education experience. Christians working in both teaching and administration can help bring pressure for change - as can parents.

Many of today’s educators were trained under a system that advocates “value-free” education. This makes some education administrators uneasy about opposing activities that might be supported using free expression arguments.

There is, however, no such thing as value-free training. All education carries with it a series of values. It’s time we recognised the urgency of teaching young people the ethics that underlie a healthy approach to privacy and civility in public discourse.

This would help them to be more discerning about the limitations of technology as well as its opportunities.

There is a vital role here for church leaders, too. Our pre-Christian culture - we have moved beyond any credible claim to being “post-Christian” - may be averse to the preaching of morality, but it will often listen to a sensible approach to ethics.

This is especially true when the ethics we espouse are demonstrably helpful to the mental health of young people.

Setting up support groups for young people who experience mild depression would be helpful. Sufferers often turn to social media for support, only to find that it exposes them to dark and stressing material.

Sending staff members for approved short courses on identifying and alleviating mild depression would assist early detection. It would provide a barometer for the health of the congregation - and thus even help pastors formulate prayer and sermon plans.

Designated support groups would also help those who face the misery of online bullying. 

"Anonymity encourages social disinhibition - people feel free to insult others online in ways they wouldn’t dream of doing face-to-face."

Anonymity encourages social disinhibition - people feel free to insult others online in ways they wouldn’t dream of doing face-to-face.

Church leaders can also help by modelling a more healthy, well-rounded approach to social media use. Most often, Christian leaders see social media as an opportunity to preach, or to promote the look and feel of Sunday services.

Neither approach is particularly convincing to people outside the church, who see better light shows - and other forms of “worship” - in nightclubs. Nor are they helpful to people within the church, who come to believe that social media - and by extension Christian witness - are primarily about monologues or marketing.

Social media are best used for conversation and the respectful sharing of ideas and experiences that add value for others.

All of this represents not just an opportunity for instruction from the pulpit. It is also our chance to serve the wider city, for the common good.

Churches can become more proactive about engaging the human impact of emerging technologies in general. The health and privacy implications of social media present us with a brilliant opportunity to make a start down that road.

If the church doesn’t stand up for the young across a town or city, who will?

Mal Fletcher 2016

Mal Fletcher is a social futurist, social commentator and speaker and the chairman of 2020Plus, a London-based think tank. He has researched global social trends for more than 25 years and speaks to civic leaders worldwide about issues relating to socio-cultural ethics & values, PESTLE Analysis, civic leadership, emerging and future technologies, social media, generational change and innovation. First published at 2020Plus.net. Copyright Mal Fletcher, 2019.