How should we control online content to protect our mental health?
From the former president of the USA downward, or some might say, upward, it’s apparent that millions of us across the planet have something to say and want to be heard. And with the rise and rise of the numerous social media platforms it becomes increasingly easy to access an outlet for our opinions. For some users that can mean scant regard to the total veracity or even the basic truth of what they post, as frequently the more provocative the posting, the more “likes” or other signs of approval it will receive.
It is beyond doubt that when Donald Trump finally realised his claims of voter fraud would fail to prolong his presidency, his Tweets still managed to incite – at least in part – the riots and subsequent storming of Capitol Hill by enraged and violent hoards of his most devoted followers. As a result, Trump was permanently banned from Twitter and from other platforms. But in the laser-fast world of social media, as one platform is taken away another is there to take its place.
Meanwhile in the UK, several sportsmen and women of colour have been subjected to extreme racist vitriol online, with their cowardly attackers hiding behind the cloak of invisibility the platforms offer. Offending accounts are usually speedily shut down, but not before the vile comments posted have been widely shared and reposted elsewhere.
Many are now claiming that enough is more than enough, with even Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, wading into the debate. They are encouraging a “healthier” social media; unsurprising given the abuse and hatred they have suffered online. In a recent interview, the prince argued strongly for increased accountability and responsibility amongst both social media users and the online platforms. There are legislative moves towards change in the pipeline, as a recent government whitepaper set out plans to regulate online harm. UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, and the national data protection watchdog, ICO, or possibly a completely new body, will potentially oversee tighter online safety rules.
Even the most vocal advocates of online restrictions stress the huge benefits of the internet. But whilst remaining committed to protecting the right of free speech, most agree that free speech does not include the right to damage the physical or mental wellbeing of others.
What our surveys show
Most of us readily confess that we’re lost without our mobile phones and the access to social media they give us. But at the same time, far more of those surveyed, 40%, think that social media has an overall negative effect on their mental health than think otherwise.
Only 15% think social media has a positive effect, while a further 31% said there is no effect at all, or a neutral effect, on their mental health. The remaining 14% didn’t know. Alarmingly, it is the younger members of our society who most consider social media to affect their wellbeing negatively, with almost half (48%) of the youngest group of all, the Z Generation, admitting they believe it damages their mental health.
Though we don’t want to live without our phones and our access to social media, it seems also that the majority of us are uncomfortable with much of what we read and digest online. A large majority, 79%, feel that social media platforms are under-regulated and that there should be more “independent” regulation of the sites. Just 11% disagree with that idea and a further 10% said they don’t know.