Social Media Can Make Us Crazy -- But Is It Cause Or Effect?

Social media has changed our world. For many, it defines their social existence. That was particularly true during the height of the pandemic. (It also caused Zoom to skyrocket in popularity and value.)

However, for various demos — Gen Z teens and college students — studies have found such usage ups anxiety and mental-health issues. The plus is a social connection and exposure to current events. Social networks can galvanize political participation and awareness.

But a 2019 study had more disturbing news for adolescents. They can spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours a day on social media. Depression and attention problems were found, so was an increase in cyberbullying, an issue that impacts all demos.

Are social networks driving us crazy? The tricky bit is causation.

Are people using more social media because they are lonely and depressed? Or, do they get lonelier and more anxious when they see curated bios and images of others that appear happier than they are? Or a bit of both?

Comparisons are inevitable — and several studies both here and abroad have noted reduced happiness in women who use social media. Simply, a loss of self-esteem and discomfort over body image can take a heavy emotional toll. Other studies find social-media users end up feeling more isolated and less self-confident. 

Even Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who capitalized on Facebook to push her campaign into overdrive, now calls the company a “public health risk.”

Yes, unplugging is theoretically an option. And it’s sound policy to take breaks from social media. Self-help books encourage it; so do psychologists. Yet usage remains high globally. We just can’t quit it — because so much of society is formatted around the Internet. It’s not a personal issue; it’s a societal one. Just see what happens if there is an outage on Facebook, Twitter or Amazon. It’s global news!

What’s the answer?

Congress is debating regulation. President Biden just tapped Lina Khan, a professor at Columbia Law School, to lead the Federal Trade Commission. Khan is known for taking a hard-line approach to regulating Big Tech companies, such as Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple. Her radar is fine-tuned to antitrust law and anti-competitive behavior. There is also the issue of user privacy: In 2019, the FTC approved a $5 billion fine for Facebook over privacy violations involving user data.

Meantime, younger demos are tethered to social networks, often exasperating even their web-dependent parents.

Social media — our relation to it and the ongoing risks and potential regulations — is, at best, a work in progress.

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