Want to be a social media influencer? You might want to think again
Canadians spend more than two hours per day on social media platforms. Social media is becoming more prevalent every day, and influencers and those that want to be influencers are too.
Influencing is an all-new career option that, until recently, didn’t exist. A social media influencer is someone who has established a reputation for being knowledgeable about a specific topic or industry and has an online following that they engage with.
Social media influencers build relationships with their followers through the content they share and interactions on live streams, comments and chats. This in turn builds a greater sense of community and ultimately gives influencers more influential power. However, the world of influencing is not always as honest and exciting as it’s cracked up to be.
Allure of influencing
As experts in social media and health outcomes, we recently examined the aspirations, desires and rationales of becoming a social media influencer among young adults. We asked 750 Canadians between 16-30 years old, who were mostly women, about their social media use and thoughts about social media influencers.
The results showed that 75 per cent of participants wanted to become social media influencers. The top three stated reasons for wanting to become social media influencers were for the money, being able to try new products or services and because they thought the work would be fun.
Other factors, such as excessive social media use; knowing, following or trusting influencers; and being willing to accept money to market a product even if they didn’t like it, also informed aspirations to become a social media influencer.
Influencers often edit their content, creating a highly desirable image that is not always reflective of reality. Some might promote products they may not truly believe in or like for financial gain. This suggests not all social media influencers are as trusting as users perceive them to be.
According to one U.S. study, one-third of young people trust health influencers on TikTok more than their doctors. This is seriously concerning, as influencers do not need any academic or professional credentials, and tend to curate their online persona through opinions rather than facts.
More disadvantages than benefits
Many social media users feel a career as an influencer is more desirable than a traditional career. Influencers tend to be idolized, especially by younger generations. So it’s not surprising that many of them are interested in a career in influencing. However, the disadvantages may outweigh the benefits.
Most participants in our study cited financial gain as the main reason for wanting to become a social media influencer, but the career might not be as lucrative as some think. It is true that top influencers can earn millions of dollars on their respective platforms, but this is the exception rather than the rule.
The average user who monetizes their content will bring in significantly less depending on the platform, number of followers, method of marketing and the type of content they are creating.
While there is limited research on what types of content are easier to monetize, many top influencers belong to different genres. That suggests intangible factors, like how authentic an influencer is perceived to be and how well they communicate and connect with their followers, are the most important keys to success.
Some platforms such as YouTube require meeting certain thresholds of subscribers and viewers before content can be monetized, with no guarantee that the creator will ever meet that threshold, even if they post regularly.
On top of an unpredictable income, another disadvantage is volatile job security. Social media networking sites use algorithms to sort posts on a user’s feed to ensure that the user sees content that the algorithm deems is relevant to them at any given time.
As this technology advances, it is becoming more difficult than ever to predict how algorithms popularize content. Even well-established content creators struggle to diversify their content and meet the ever-changing demands of seemingly random algorithms.
Unforeseen national policy changes can also add uncertainty. Canada’s impending Bill C-11 will require streaming platforms like YouTube to promote a minimum amount of Canadian content to its Canadian users.
This is worrisome for some Canadian content creators, as Bill C-11 does not specifically define what is considered Canadian content, and has the potential to reduce the visibility of their content and make it difficult for them to reach the same number of users.
Similarly, the TikTok bans in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere have some content creators on edge about potentially losing access to the platform.
All these issues make influencing a difficult career to break into and maintain. It is important for those interested in making a career out of influencing to be aware of these challenges.
As a form of independent entrepreneurship, influencing comes with no regulation, training or support. The result of this can be young content creators struggling with physical and mental health issues brought on by cyberbullying and high stress.
With more young people wanting to be influencers, it is our job to educate rather than dissuade. By highlighting these realities, we hope to mitigate some of the negative outcomes associated with a career in social media influencing.
Opinion: Social media, news outlets should kiss and make up – Winnipeg Free Press
The doctrine of mutually assured destruction — which arose in the 1960s as part of the global debate about the present danger of nuclear war — suggests that two opponents who are powerful enough to destroy each other will likely avoid conflict to ensure their mutual survival. One can only hope the world’s social media companies, and the most prominent news organizations, are familiar with the concept.
For many years now, governments in many countries have been sparring with the giants of technology and social media — Meta (parent of Facebook and Instagram) and Google in particular — to find a larger and more reliable revenue stream to support news organizations.
In short, traditional business models that sustained news organizations have been eviscerated by digital media, where the giants of the sector operate with a virtual monopoly that sucks up nearly 80 per cent of all money spent on digital advertising worldwide. Recognizing the important role that news organizations play in the fabric of democracy, governments have pressed social media companies to pay more for the news content that circulates on their platforms.
Although these battles have taken the combatants right up to the edge of mutually assured destruction, cooler heads always seem to prevail. However, there is always a chance that at some point, someone will do something really stupid.
The latest conflict surrounds Bill C-18, the Online News Act, which would force social media companies to negotiate more and better deals for the traditional news content they share on their platforms. It is expected to clear the Senate before Parliament breaks for the summer, and head toward proclamation.
The companies argue they already support Canadian news through things like the Google News Showcase, which pays modest sums to news organizations that agree to post there. They also claim the bill would massively inflate the amount of that support.
As a result, both Google and Meta recently threatened to block Canadian news content from their platforms if the bill is enacted without changes.
At this point, you should ask how a fight between governments and social media companies could qualify as a form of mutually assured destruction?
Many Canadians implicitly understand the damage that could be done to news organizations if they could no longer use social media to drive readers to their content.
This week, executives from some of country’s largest news organizations described the possible exclusion from social media as an existential threat that would erode both readership/viewership and what little digital advertising money they earn now.
However, what’s at risk for the tech companies?
Although different social media platforms have different purposes, a significant quantity of social media content is either postings made directly by journalists and news organizations, or by users reacting to news stories.
The tech companies regularly claim less than 10 per cent of all traffic involves news. And yet, social media is acknowledged as one of the most important tools for the distribution and consumption of news. Depending on the source, anywhere from one-third to half of all adults use social media to get their news.
Depending on the source, anywhere from one-third to half of all adults use social media to get their news.
Put another way, most of us have come to rely on the fact that social media includes news. By various estimates, somewhere around 75 per cent of Facebook users identify messaging friends and family as their No. 1 use. However, close to 60 per cent say they use Facebook to keep up on current events.
So, even if the amount of content is small, the interest it has for social media users is quite high. And in that equation, we find a reasonable amount of peril for the companies that operate the platform.
It’s also important to note that many social media companies are struggling to increase their audience. Facebook, in particular, is fighting against stagnating subscriber numbers; over the site’s total number of users has grown substantially in the last 10 years but has been steady at just under three billion for the last three years.
There is enough evidence to make the case that both news organizations and social media companies are co-dependent. News is a popular feature on social media and given that Facebook and Google don’t create news content, they obviously have an interest in making sure someone else can.
How do we get beyond the standoff?
The smart money would say that Google and Meta are bluffing about cutting news out of the feeds Canadians receive. The companies tried a similar strategy in Australia, where news content was stripped from Google and Facebook in February 2022 for eight days.
The Australian government held firm, and the tech companies relented and struck deals to pay news organizations.
The question is whether the level of support demanded by Bill C-18 is so much bigger than what they’re providing right now that the companies are willing to edge closer to destruction.
As long as both sides are willing to acknowledge their co-dependence, everything will work out. Unless they forget about words like co-dependence. And then things will get ugly.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Will Google's AI Plans Destroy the Media? – New York Magazine
Early this year, Google teased a fundamental change to its core product, the search engine through which much of the world accesses the web. Soon, the company said, Google would start using AI to “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats.” By May, the company had a real product to share.
For Google, it was an obvious and incremental feature update combining two of the company’s products: a text generator plugged into a search engine, basically. Searchers ask a question, and Google tries to answer it with short, article-style “snapshots.”
For publishers, however — of news, how-to content, reviews, recommendations, reference material, and a range of other content one might describe as existing to “distill complex information and multiple perspectives into easy-to-digest formats” — it looked like nothing less than an existential crisis. Google was getting into content, automating the work of its partners, and dramatically altering the terms of its informal deal with publishers that has sustained digital media for years: You make content; we send traffic; everyone sells ads. If this wasn’t a threat to journalism directly, it was certainly a threat to the journalism business. Google, it seemed, was eager to cut the publishers out.
It’s early, still, and AI search won’t threaten much of anything if it fundamentally doesn’t work, or if users don’t like it, which we’ll know soon enough. But it doesn’t have to be perfect, or even great, to dramatically alter the online economy. A stickier question is whether Google, possessed of a new capability to inflict massive harm on digital publishers and the web in general — and meanwhile battling very different firms for AI dominance — will decide, in the coming months, that it is in its own business interest to do so.
In its current form, Google’s Search Generative Experience will answer a question about the debt ceiling with a lengthy attempt to summarize the news.
Up top, searchers get a 272-word summary of the news with a bit of background. Its citations, which are hidden behind a small button in the upper-right portion of the screen, include a consulting firm, a think tank, and a slew of news organizations, including the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NBC. Conventional search results are well beyond the bottom of the screen; on this issue, the information was accurate, though it’s still pretty easy to get tripped up.
Media executives are sounding the alarm. “Our content is being harvested and scraped and otherwise ingested to train AI engines,” said News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson at the INMA World Congress of News Media last week. “These are super-snippets containing all the effort and insight of great journalism but designed so the reader will never visit a journalism website, thus fatally undermining that journalism.” He added, “Content mining is an extractive industry.” Brian Morrissey, the former editor of the media trade publication Digiday, outlined publishing’s Google predicament at The Rebooting, predicting the decline of the web page in general:
As Google eliminated all credible competition, search became a mostly reliable distribution channel. The bargain was always for publishers to play by Google’s rules, then make money from ads that very often ran through Google’s ad stack and let them wet their beak. It was a roundabout way of paying tribute to the king. Nobody likes taxes, but if someone controls the distribution, you pay up …
That’s breaking. Google’s demo of its new AI-fueled search engine heralds a new phase of search that will throw the page’s central role in publishing strategies into question.
“From Google’s demos, what’s clear is less traffic will go to publishers,” he said. Less traffic means less of everything that keeps modern media companies afloat: advertising revenue, subscription conversions, e-commerce revenue.
“At the risk of overstating the potential consequences,” wrote Matt Novak at Forbes, Google’s search overhaul “will be like dropping a nuclear bomb on an online publishing industry that’s already struggling to survive.”
Google stressed that this was an experimental feature and that, for now, it would be limited to testers who opted in. Certain categories of queries would not trigger the snapshots, the company said — sensitive medical questions, for example — and each answer can be checked, sort of, by clicking a button that reveals linked citations for each sentence. Classic results would still be present, though less visible.
Still, the change would represent a fundamental shift in what Google does, how users interact with it, and how it interacts with the web around it. For billions of people, Google is the default interface for the rest of the online world. It’s the portal through which all other sites are accessed. It’s the box — on your phone or your computer or your tablet — with which you interact so often you take it for granted. It’s a de facto governing authority for the parts of the internet that aren’t hidden away inside social platforms and apps and has unparalleled sway over what gets seen online and by how many people. If implemented at all, by virtue of Google’s size, it would have a significant effect on traffic for pretty much any digital publisher.
This is a facet of the larger AI story — which is to say it’s about automation. But it’s also a story of a large platform deciding to compete more aggressively in the marketplace it controls. With snapshots, Google is pushing into some of the most lucrative parts of the content business over which it already exerts enormous influence. That the sorts of content it seems to be automating first are explainers, guides, and product rankings is no coincidence — these are styles of content that publishers currently produce with Google traffic in mind. If Google hired tens of thousands of contractors to produce “snapshots” and product recommendations for popular searches, it would be easy enough to conceptualize and very bad news for a number of Google-dependent online industries; that it’s doing so with “generative AI” suggests that what was holding it back from attempting to replicate or replace some of the most trafficked sites on the web wasn’t some lofty notion of how Google should function as a market or an ecosystem, some sense of stewardship over “the web” as a concept, but cost.
A lot of dark predictions about AI are counterintuitively sort of naïve, imagining the technology as a distinct and novel entity with its own motives or as a phenomenon that will be evenly experienced across the economy. Google, here, teases a more familiar story, utterly devoid of novelty: Large firm seeks efficiencies and uses machines to achieve them.
The doomsayers have a point, in other words: If Google commits to summarizing more and more of the content it used to serve, the companies that make it are in for an even worse time than they’re already having. The vast majority of publishers are individually insignificant to Google and have no collective power to speak of. With apologies to Mr. Thomson, News Corp. properties, with their search-engine-optimization teams and content strategies, are already scrounging for traffic from the margins of Google’s user experience. As any SEO professional will tell you, it wouldn’t take something so dramatic as an “AI-search makeover” to lose a significant chunk of your inbound readership from Google. Small mysterious updates to its search algorithms have pitted publishers against the company’s machine-learning systems for years.
In publishing, however, there is also a tendency to overestimate the forecasting abilities, and general competence, of larger and more successful technology companies. Google, one of the largest tech companies in the world, has a lot to gain and lose by altering search, which generated $162 billion of Google’s $224 billion in advertising revenue in 2022. It has skin in the game. Will Google users be happy with a machine-improvised Wikipedia article at the top of their search results? Will it change their relationship to the sponsored links at the heart of Google’s business? Will they take product recommendations seriously from a Google bot? Will Google’s AI testing phase result in doubling down on content automation or quietly rolling it back? Will that be because users don’t care for it, or because they do, but it’s in a way that threatens Google’s business? Their predicament is the AI dilemma in not-so-miniature: a confrontation with the essential weirdness of generating synthetic information.
Replacing outbound links to the web with machine-synthesized summaries of the web is both an obvious use case for generative AI and a direct threat to the economy in which a range of content — including journalism — is currently produced. But its success depends on a few assumptions: that the summaries are good or, far more important, that people think they’re good and trust them; that, in the long term, there remains sufficient scrape-able content to summarize; that the web ecosystem Google will be exploiting won’t be itself overrun with AI-generated content, leading to a death spiral of content credibility and relevance; that stepping deeper into the content business makes any sense for Google, the leadership of which might be acting out of fear of missing out on the next big thing, at the company’s peril. Some of these issues are less speculative than others. For decades now, the entire web has been optimizing itself for Google, modifying and producing content with search traffic in mind; Google, which was built around the idea of surfacing and organizing the world’s information, has instead created the mother of all spam problems, which it struggles daily to solve.
But from the user perspective, Google as an AI-powered answer engine is also uncharacteristically aligned: It casts present-day Google Search as something broken that needs to be fixed — which, well, maybe it is. Rather than contending with a cluttered interface and a gauntlet of advertising to get to a credible link, the company has teased something clean, clear, and refocused on results. The company’s AI-search demos have doubled as scathing critiques of the mess that search has become and of a business model that depends on interruption, diversion, and extra engagement. Maybe this pristine alternative vision is indeed what we end up with, in which case the web as we knew it is shoved off the page, a decades-old online civilization of websites reduced to training data for slick chatbots.
Or maybe, after a brief detour, Google’s true identity as an advertising business reassumes control and once again draws it, and its users, back into the lucrative mess, where they will continue to tap and click their way through interfaces that are designed as much to monetize them as to assist them in anything resembling a “search.” For Google, it might be better to have a web to exploit than to have no web at all.
The Problem With Comparing Social Media to Big Tobacco – The Atlantic
Last month, the surgeon general released a lengthy advisory calling attention to social media and its effects on the mental health of teenagers. Historically, a warning from the surgeon general pointed a big neon sign at an issue that we might not be sure how much to worry about: cigarettes, AIDS, drunk driving. But people are already worried about social media—and they’re acting on those concerns. School districts are suing social-media companies for “knowingly” harming children. Legislators are grilling tech-company founders in hearings. Pundits are calling for age-restricting access to apps. Everyone just wants to do something, anything, to get this under control.
This is all understandable. Teenagers have become more anxious and more depressed. A notable rise in depression started in 2012, about the time many high schoolers got smartphones. Many parents who had teenagers during that period saw these changes in real time: A child who might have been ruffled by school social dynamics suddenly couldn’t escape them, and her mental health tanked.
The problem is real. But is it as real as the problems caused by cigarettes or drunk driving? We don’t know yet. Researchers have only started to understand who is vulnerable and what we can do to protect them. In this conversation, we talk with Kaitlyn Tiffany, who covers tech for The Atlantic and has been tracking the unfolding research into the effects of social media in detail. We won’t tell you whether to worry a lot, or not at all. We’ll just step away from the urgency for a moment to tell you what experts know, what they are guessing at, and how you might proceed in all that frustrating uncertainty.
Listen to the conversation here:
The following is a transcript of the episode:
Hanna Rosin: I’m Hanna Rosin, and this is Radio Atlantic. So last week I was talking to a friend of mine who shared this fantasy she has of shipping her kids to a tech-free island where there were no phones, no tablets, no video games, no computers, not even a television. Now, I’ve parented three teenagers. And I’ve had this fantasy myself many, many times.
And like all fantasies of frustrated parents, it’s useless. Like you can practically hear the teen eye rolls in the background. This episode is my attempt to be useful to address the problem of teens, their phones, and their mental health from a place of facts and research and actual knowledge.
So this week I’m going to talk to staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany, who writes about tech and online culture, and who knows that this issue is both urgent—laws are being considered right now—and annoyingly hard to pin down.
Kaitlyn Tiffany: Obviously, in eight years of writing about social media, I would not ever argue that it’s unfair to criticize these tech companies or that there’s not a ton to criticize, but it just seems counterproductive to constantly just be blaring the sirens rather than saying anything specific.
Rosin: Oh my God, I’m so glad to hear you say that. The word I keep writing down every time, almost every time I read about teens and social media, is broad. Like I’ve, I, I’ve moved away from hysterical, which is what I used to write down, but I still feel intellectually like it’s just too broad.
Tiffany: Yeah, definitely.
Rosin: And part of why I wanted to talk to Tiffany now is that it’s not just parents who are trying to crack this. It’s teachers, the teens themselves, but also legislators. There is a real hunger to do something. Pass something now, and last week gave that a big push forward.
Archival: Today, the U.S. surgeon general released sobering new figures on teen social-media use and its effects on their mental health. Dr. Vivek Murphy says social media’s effect on the mental health of young people isn’t fully understood yet. It is a main contributor to depression, anxiety, and other problems in the nation’s teenagers.
Rosin: So Tiffany, what exactly did the surgeon general say last week?
Tiffany: So the surgeon general released this 19-page advisory about social media that basically identifies it as a quote public-health challenge, but also emphasized that there’s a lot of research that needs to be done before people can say that social media is, quote, unquote, safe. So that’s kind of an interesting approach. He’s not saying that we need to prove that it’s dangerous. He’s saying we need to prove that it’s not dangerous.
Tiffany: And he’s drawing attention to possible risks of harm, especially for adolescents in, like, specific developmental stages. So younger preteen girls—11 to 13— boys, 14 to 15 years old, but also acknowledging there are these known, quote, unquote, evidence gaps. So was the most harmful thing that you’re losing sleep? Is the most harmful thing that you are not seeing your friends in person, et cetera? But the headline, yeah, is kind of like, Everyone pay attention to this.
It could be really bad.
Rosin: Right. Okay, so here is kind of a big question. What do we know about social media and kids at this point?
Tiffany: What we know is that through the process of doing hundreds of studies, researchers have somewhat narrowed down to some really pertinent questions about when and under which circumstances social media would be bad. It’s not in all circumstances, and it’s not for everyone. I know that is very confusing, but that is pretty much what we know.
Rosin: Yeah it creates this funky moment where legislators wanna do something now. And I bet the surgeon general’s report will just make that more intense. But the research doesn’t have enough nuance right now. Like in order to know what to do, you kind of have to know more precisely what the problem is, but the research isn’t quite there yet.
Rosin: Yeah. Okay. So maybe we should talk about how we got here.
Tiffany: Yeah, so I’d say there are three pretty significant moments we should touch on. A lot of researchers, or people who are interested in this topic, point to 2012 as being sort of the saturation point where the iPhone had been out long enough that young kids were starting to have them. It was also the year that Facebook acquired Instagram, which ballooned its growth, led to it launching on Android and becoming sort of a part of everyone’s daily lives.
Rosin: So the image we have of a teenager walking around with a phone, looking at whatever they’re looking at [on] Snapchat, Instagram, that started in 2012?
Tiffany: Yeah. Or, you know, became sort of the mass phenomenon by 2012. I remember somebody in my high school having an iPhone in 2007, but he was like the only person that everybody would, like, line up to play with it. It wasn’t normal yet.
Rosin: Yeah, 2012 was exactly the year that my then-preteen daughter got a cellphone, and that everybody suddenly had one in middle school.
Okay, let’s back up, because I didn’t ask you an important question: Are you interested in naming your generation? Just because a lot of this conversation is often framed as generational battles, so I’m curious to understand where you intersect with social media.
Tiffany: Oh yeah, sure. I’m a Millennial, so I did not have social media until, like, the very end of high school. My senior year, I got a Facebook account, and then I guess I wasn’t on Instagram until I [had] almost graduated from college because I didn’t have a smartphone right away.
Rosin: I just think it’s important to locate people in where they are. It’s like, are they the alarmed parent generation or are they the teenager? Are they somewhere in the middle?
Tiffany: Yeah, totally.
Rosin: Okay, so then it’s just everybody’s walking around with cellphones and then what happens?
Tiffany: Yeah, so, the next significant turning point is in 2017, where there is a bit of a backlash, I think partly driven by interest in some tech personalities talking about how they don’t let their kids use screens. But then actually sort of—
Rosin: Is that really—that’s, that’s one of the things that did it?
Rosin: That’s really funny.
Tiffany: I think it comes up a bit that, like, Steve Jobs didn’t think kids should use technology like that. But yeah, 2016, 2017, there’s more concern about should kids be spending the whole day looking at their smartphones. And The Atlantic actually published a really big piece by a researcher named Jean Twenge where the headline was “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”
Rosin: [Gasps] That is such an Atlantic-y headline. That’s actually one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you, because I remember, I remember reading that story. I just remember having a huge resistance to it. Even though, you know, I wrote for The Atlantic, just thinking, like, Wow, that’s throwing the gauntlet down.
That’s, like, a really big question. I mean, I know it had a question mark after it, but it was like, have smartphones destroyed a generation?
Tiffany: Yeah. And it’s like, and we think the answer is yes.
Rosin: Right, right. All right, so what did Twenge argue in that article?
Tiffany: Yeah. So she was talking about these numbers that she’d been seeing, which come out regularly, from this survey that the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducts, asking adolescents about how happy they are and how they spend their free time. And she was noticing this correlation between spending a lot of time looking at screens and also expressing unhappiness and depression and suicidal ideation. That was the first thing that really concerned her. And then she was also pulling out these more specific data points, like a decrease in [the] number of teenagers who were driving or going out on dates or who had ever had sex. And there was the trend line showing that people were saying “I often feel left out of things,” or “A lot of times I feel lonely,” or “I get less than seven hours of sleep per night.” Those were concerning to her as well.
Rosin: So just to be perfectly clear, the headline says, has X caused Y, but what the data did was put X next to Y, right? It was just like in these last few years, teenagers have gotten smartphones. Also, in these last few years, there’s been this marked shift in a lot of markers of wellness. It was “an elbow in the data,” like that it was unmissable because it was such a sharp turn.
So it’s like, we see the sharp turn. Also, there were cellphones. There’s no causality there, right?
Tiffany: Yeah, yeah, so she’s talking about CDC surveys that were not specifically intended to look at how social media might affect teen mental health. They were, you know, sort of general as of like teen behavior and psychology.
And then she was creatively reading them and presenting a very legitimate hypothesis. But then, social-science researchers were presented with the challenge then of seeing whether that would bear out. So right after her article came out, there’s a huge balloon in the amount of research that was conducted. But, yeah, the first step would’ve just been like, Cool hypothesis. Let’s give it a whirl.
Rosin: Yeah. Okay. So basically that’s what I thought. Basically what’s happening between 2017 and now is, like, Cool hypothesis. Let’s test it out in lots of different formats. Let’s road test it here and there, and let’s just see, like, does it hold up? So what were the dynamics that researchers started to hypothesize?
Tiffany: So around this time, the initial question that people had was about screen time overall. So the next notable moment would have come in 2019, when researchers from Oxford published this study that was looking for correlations between digital-technology use and well-being.
And once they found this small correlation, they then sort of set it up against some other things to provide context to readers, which is pretty innovative I guess, because it allowed the study to travel pretty far, because rather than saying, Oh, the association between technology use and well-being is negative 0.049, which is probably meaningless to most people, you can say that the association between technology use and well-being is smaller than the association that’s been found between well-being and binge drinking or smoking or even having asthma or wearing glasses. And it’s only very slightly larger than the association between well-being and eating potatoes.
Rosin: Oh, this is the potato study, right?
Tiffany: Yes. The iconic potato study.
Rosin: The Great Potato Study. I remember that study, and I remember headlines like “Screen Time Is About as Dangerous as Potatoes,” and I remember finding it also totally unsatisfying because it was like, “Oh, you know, it’s ruining a generation.” “No, it’s totally cool. It’s fine. Like, there’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” It was like neither of those answers seemed correct or were satisfying.
Like, you could see as a parent that something historically monumental was happening and you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. And just from my perspective, like, I neither wanted to be completely, totally alarmed, nor did I want to be like, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” you know?
Tiffany: Yeah, I think the value of the potato study is that it was sort of like resetting the table a bit—like the objective, you know, when the researchers talked about the study after it was published, was to kind of acknowledge that screen time as a category is just like too broad to study in a meaningful way, because people use screens for so many different things, you know? They use them to harass and stalk people, or they use them to, like, do a yoga video. They use them to research their homework. They use them to, like, mindlessly scroll through TikTok. Like, it would be impossible to get a meaningful answer at, like, a high level about how screens as a blanket category affect people’s lives.
Rosin: Right, right. It’s useful to have a reset so that we can start narrowing in on what the problem actually is, because there is an actual problem, right? Like, depression is rising. It is a real thing. I mean, I’ve looked at the same data set that these researchers are concerned about, and they’re right. It’s really stark. Like, look at rates of depression and suicidality among teenage girls, and it’s incontrovertible that something is happening. So we’re worried about something beyond just, you know, We hate Mark Zuckerberg.
Tiffany: Yeah. I mean, the legitimate worry is that there are obvious and measured increases in depression among young people. There was a big CDC trend report that came out earlier this year that was looking at the data from 2011 to 2021.
Tiffany: So in 2011, 28 percent of teenagers said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and in 2021, that number had jumped to 42 percent.
And they saw big jumps in the percentage of high-school students who experienced, quote, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a jump in the percentage that considered suicide, as well as they started measuring for the first time the percentage that said they’d experienced poor mental health, including stress and anxiety and depression in the past 30 days. That number was 29 percent. And for female students, 57 percent said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 69 percent of LGBTQ students. So those were kind of the dramatic top-line numbers that were widely covered and alarming.
Rosin: Yeah, and I guess we can all imagine there are lots and lots of reasons why young people would feel hopeless or in despair. But I also will say I’ve had many conversations with fellow parents who would describe it as night and day, like what their child was like before they were deep in social media all day and all night and had no escape from it.
And what they were like after that was their reality. Like people can truly narrate, you know, Okay, my child was like this. They would go in their room and draw; they would read a book; even if they had a bad time at school, they could escape from it. And then all of a sudden that wasn’t possible. It became like it totally occupied their psyche.
Tiffany: Yeah, definitely.
Rosin: So, okay, so let me summarize so far. So you had the Twenge article, which was like a boom in one direction, and then you had the potato research, which was a boom in the other direction. And it just sort of flipped-flopped back and forth. There’s hysteria. There’s the bounce back from hysteria. And hopefully, what I’m hoping is that, since 2012, researchers start to get more specific.
Like they start to narrow in on who’s vulnerable and what kinds of behaviors are vulnerable.
Tiffany: Yeah. I think once you get past the Oxford study in 2019, you’re at a point where you’re saying it’s not yes or no, and we’re done talking about screens. That’s pointless. Let’s talk specifically about social media, and let’s pull the data out into more specific segments so that we can be talking about specific populations, because it’s also a waste of our time to say, Screens do X to everyone all the time.
Rosin: Okay, so you and I have had this really lovely clarifying academic discussion, but the world doesn’t necessarily have patience for our lovely little academic discussion, because there is this growing urgency for regulatory or legislative intervention, and it’s kind of becoming hard to resist.
Tiffany: Yeah, so I think the question of, like, regulatory or legislative intervention has been much more urgent and frequently asked in the last couple of years, since the Facebook files were leaked by Frances Haugen. To time stamp, this was in the fall of 2021. Frances Haugen, who was an employee at Facebook, leaked a huge batch of documents from the company to a bunch of journalists. And in the Facebook files, the most dramatic revelation was this collection of slides presenting internal research that Facebook had done where teen girls expressly said, Instagram makes me feel bad about myself or causes all of these problems for me in my emotional life.
And the thing that was sort of missing from a lot of the conversation around those slides was that they were conducted not scientifically, like admittedly not scientifically, not for scientific purposes. So there’s a pretty big contrast between that and the sort of like decades of studies proving that cigarettes cause cancer.
But the takeaway from the Frances Haugen leak was that meme of, like, “Facebook knew”—like, Facebook knew it was doing this.
And so that was kind of transitioned quite smoothly and quickly into this comparison to Big Tobacco, which is super common now.
And I get why people use these metaphors. I just, like, worry about how literal people take them sometimes, because cigarettes do not have societal benefits and people died horrifically of lung cancer. That is simply not the same thing as the questions that we have about social media.
Like, tobacco is bad for everyone. Full stop. If you smoke cigarettes, that’s bad for you, and there’s no debate about that. And social media can be bad for some people in certain circumstances, but it also would be pretty ridiculous, I think, to argue that it has no benefits whatsoever.
Tiffany: And it’s not as simple as saying: “Drop the cigarette; it’s gonna kill you.”
Rosin: Mm, this is so helpful. I already understand so much more than I did, you know, half an hour ago when we started this conversation. For me, this is important and satisfying because almost everything I read in the popular media, like, nothing feels specific enough to me. So that’s basically what I’m looking for. It’s, like, Oh, we’re about to enter this era where we’re gonna haul people up to the Hill and make all this legislation.
But before I know how to think about all that legislation or if I think it’s the right thing to do, or not the right thing to do, I just feel like I need to understand a little better what the problem is and, like, who, who we’re targeting and what the research shows and just understand it a little better.
Tiffany: Yeah, definitely. If there are big policy changes now, it will be hard to, first of all, prove what kind of effect they have and, second of all, reverse them if they don’t work. So, the stakes are really high; we should definitely figure out what we’re doing.
Rosin: Okay, that brings us to now. So let’s you and I do it. Let’s get into specifics. What concrete things do researchers actually know? And what directions are they pointing in now?
Tiffany: Yeah, I think there are still questions that remain to be answered, and hopefully some of those will come as we’ve had more time to do, like, longer studies. There’s one that’s being done right now that started in 2016 that’s looking at the same group over a period of 10 years. So you can maybe identify specifically cause and effect, but there’s been some smaller-scale ones that I think pretty convincingly prove that there are these windows of acute vulnerability for teenagers, and specifically for young girls between 11 and 13 and boys between 14 and 15.
But for girls it’s even more apparent, and there are pretty clear relations between specific mental-health outcomes. So as social-media use goes up, the satisfaction in their appearance goes sharply down, in a study that came out last year. So those things are starting to be repeated more clearly, which also gives important clues as to the mechanisms of how social-media use would affect somebody’s mental health, because, like, in that case, that’s obviously an issue of, like, of body image and social comparison, which is about the platform itself.
Whereas, you know, some other studies have wondered, maybe it’s not anything that they’re doing online. Maybe it’s just the fact that being on your phone means that you sleep less or go outside less, or hang out with your friends in person less. So if that’s the case, you know, that becomes maybe more of an issue of parenting than if it is specifically about the content they’re being served or about the sort of basic structure of the app. Like, that’s really good to know and is important to act on. I think it is obviously still difficult to say, like, “What are you gonna do about the fact that Instagram makes girls feel bad about the way that they look?” That’s a pretty broad problem with a lot of cultural history and baggage, but it’s at least, like, something to focus on.
Rosin: Mm-hmm. It’s funny; a lot of this is, like, it sort of ends up in a commonsense realm.
Rosin: I have my parent hat [on] now. So, like everything else, it requires knowing the child, and, whether it’s a teacher who knows the child or a parent or friends, it’s like there are young girls whose brains are still developing, who are just past puberty, who are maybe self-conscious, and social media can exacerbate, it sounds like, existing dynamics that girls have struggled with forever.
And so if you know that there’s a kid who’s just especially vulnerable to those dynamics, and let’s say you notice them up all night or not sleeping or really fixated on these things.
Tiffany: Yeah, I think that’s right.
Rosin: Like, as a parent, I’ve definitely had the instinct of, like, Get off your damn phone. But it seems like if you’re actually looking for vulnerability, it’s a little more precise than that.
Tiffany: Yeah. And I think it sounds kind of hokey to be, like, “Just talk to your kids.” But these do seem to be things that kids are pretty articulate about.
Rosin: Mm-hmm. So the dynamics they’re talking about with young girls, are they just the dynamics of time immemorial? Like do they ever get into, you know, is it scrolling that’s the problem? Is it scrolling for X number of hours? Is it your close friends, or is it looking at pictures of the Kardashians?
Like, what have they ever, like, homed in on sort of, what is the behavior that leaves you feeling vulnerable? Like, is it passive or active? Is it posting pictures or just looking at other people’s pictures?
Tiffany: Yeah, there was a period where there was a lot of interest in that distinction between active and passive use: people sort of arguing that there might be a difference in terms of how social media affects you, whether you’re actively messaging people and posting stuff. And that might be good, whereas passively scrolling and, you know, just seeing things that make you feel bad would be worse.
But it kind of came down to these aren’t meaningful distinctions, because there’s good active use and there’s destructive active use and there’s good passive use. You know, I spend a lot of time scrolling on my phone, because I am reading The Atlantic, which is passive use, of my phone.
And there’s bad passive use, which would be like when you’re scrolling and you don’t know why and you didn’t wanna be, and it makes you feel bad.
Rosin: Got it. So it’s not as mechanistic as what you are doing. What matters is who you are at the moment that you’re doing it, and what your orientation towards it is. Like, if you happen to be in a moment of distress and you’re in a certain age, it doesn’t matter if you’re using it actively or passively; social media is gonna amplify your distress.
Tiffany: Yeah, and there’s been some more recent research that suggests that it could matter how you think about social media as well. So if you feel like social media is fun—it’s where I connect with my friends; I use it for the X reason and then I stop using it, because I’m in control—like, in those situations it can be related to positive outcomes, as opposed to negative outcomes.
Negative outcomes are more tied to feeling, like, I have no control over this and I’m spending so much time doing it and I don’t want to be.
Rosin: Yeah. Okay. That’s important too. So that is, that’s actually, there’s another parenting lesson in there. If you can somehow orient your kid towards a feeling of control, like, Use this in a way that benefits you and don’t let it use you. Again, very commonsensical, but maybe that’s—that gives you another tool, like, I’m not just yelling at you because you’re on your phone. I’m trying to understand how you are orienting yourself and managing the time that you’re on your phone and whether it’s serving you or it’s making you feel worse.
Rosin: Yeah. So despite the research being incomplete and the questions being thorny and philosophical, there are going to be things proposed. So what do you know about the things that have already been proposed?
Tiffany: So there are state laws that have been passed or proposed in many states already that would make it so that minors can’t be on social media without parental permission.
Rosin: That’s age-gating, right?
Tiffany: That’s the age-gating solution, yeah, that a lot of pundits have been sort of advocating for, for the past couple of years, including Frances Haugen. I think those will face a lot of challenges, including, like, in enforceability and just, like, First Amendment issues. A lot of free-speech-issue groups would say that it’s not productive to just prohibit young people from speaking in public.
I think just, like, personally, it just seems very punitive, even if that’s not how people, like, mean it to come off to kids. Like, how else are they gonna receive it? And it’s just a more dramatic measure than I think people are giving credit for. Because you can say, like, “Hey, well, we age–gate other things.You can’t drive until X age. You can’t drink until X age. Why not say you can’t have an Instagram until X age?” But you are in effect yanking something away from millions of teenagers, some of whom might be like really, I don’t know, emotionally dependent on it. Or even just like creatively dependent or like really enjoy using it and it’s not harming them.
And it, it just seems really—it’s really dramatic and really abrupt and something that should only be considered if there’s, like, absolutely a rock-solid evidence base in my opinion.
Rosin: Interesting. I also don’t know how you would measure this at all, but it does create a sense of distrust between generations, because you could make the argument as a parent that smoking is inherently bad. You can’t smoke as a kid. Drinking is, you know, you’re just not ready to drink; you’re not ready to drive a car.
But I, but I don’t know that a kid would fully get on board with the idea that you’re not ready to use any social media at all. Like, they could understand, okay, there are some dangers out there and we should talk about it and sort of watch for vulnerabilities, but like, an N-O? I don’t know.
Tiffany: Yeah. Yeah, totally.
Rosin: Yeah. Okay, so is there, are there other proposals that you’ve seen that seem interesting or dangerous?
Tiffany: Yeah, I think the FTC is trying to, like, be a bit more creative about how to limit Facebook and Instagram’s ability to profit off of targeted advertising towards teens, which some people would maybe think of as being productive, because it eliminates a little bit of their profit motive to keep teens on the app all the time.
You know, I’m pro-privacy. I think that’s a good idea. It’s pretty complicated in that it’s not just about what Facebook does, but yeah. I mean, I think that’s a good thing to aim for for sure.
Rosin: Now, how would that address the original problem we discussed, which is depression?
Rosin: Like, I feel like a lot of this is sort of like setting up a, a kind of, like, Rein those guys in. But the problem we started out with was that social media was making kids distressed.
Tiffany: Yeah. I guess this gets at why it’s so important for the research to identify the specific problems and the specific mechanisms, because, like, if the main way that social media is causing depression or anxiety in teens is because it’s preventing them from getting enough sleep and it’s preventing them from seeing their friends in public, just purely hypothetically, like then what you could, like, deduce from that is that, like, okay, maybe these products are just too addictive, and our kids are being sort of coerced into staying on them for too long.
And it’s not about the content; it’s just about purely how much time they’re taking away from things that make them happier and healthier. So in that situation, it’s a little bit more obvious why reducing Instagram’s incentive to, like, keep kids on the app and to, you know, get more data from them that they can monetize and serve them more ads, like, Instagram would be more incentivized to focus on adults and not serve as many ads to kids. And, and you know, personally I don’t think, like, Instagram is just, like, ruthlessly driven to extract all monetary value from children. Even as, again, I don’t wanna be in the position of, like, defending a corporation, but that’s sort of the logic and that’s sort of the reason why you have to get more specific.
And if the answer is that the main way that Instagram causes depression is through negative social comparison and like poor body image instigated by seeing all of these images of models, like, no, probably privacy protection isn’t gonna solve that problem. We’d have to come up with something else.
Rosin: You know, we talked about this; it’s hard to talk about, but like, we get stuck in a moment or sort of, like, in the same way we get stuck in a musical moment. We get stuck in a kind of social-media moment.
And meanwhile, like, people have moved along. They’re using different platforms; they’re kind of navigating it much more deftly, say, than the generation or even the two years before them.
Tiffany: Yeah, I always sort of, like, marvel at my younger sister’s levels of adjustment and happiness. But, I guess, I mean, this is not scientific at all. This is just like a personal pet theory based on nothing except anecdotal experience, but, like, they are a little bit more squarely in this demographic of concern. I think two of them would be considered Gen Z? And my understanding from, from watching them or talking to them is, like, they really experienced very little strife around social media because it felt pretty natural to them, you know? They post goofy—like, ugly, sometimes—pictures of themselves. And, you know, that’s, like, funny and fun for them. I sometimes wonder if there is, like. a kind of narrow band of people, like maybe around my age or a little bit younger, who were forced to adapt to these things in real time, in the middle of puberty, which made it maybe more fraught than if you had just always thought of Instagram as something that existed and something that you were gonna one day use.
Rosin: You know, that is such a good point. It’s anecdotal, of course, but we do talk about his research as if these teenagers are fixed in time. Like there was only this one band of teenagers, but maybe they got the onslaught and then as time went on, people got more adjusted. Like, they themselves changed and maybe caught up with things.
So maybe the teenagers we’re legislating for are not the same teenagers we studied. And the problems of the earlier set of young people, they just might not be the same as the problems of teenagers now.
Tiffany: Yeah, because, like, I did have a lot of anxiety around Instagram in my early 20s when I first had it, and have gone through periods like, you know, during breakups where Instagram is like absolutely a toxic minefield for me in many ways, including, like, all of the body-image stuff we’ve been talking about. But, but I—I sometimes do, yeah, just think like, Huh, maybe there’s something about, like, kind of always having this and sort of deciding how to use it yourself and just be like, “Well, it exists; it’s part of life.”
Rosin: Yeah, no, I mean, there’s a, there’s actually a really good lesson in there, because what you’re describing about your sisters is they use it; like, it exists. They know the name of it; their older sister used it. Lots of people use it. It’s not this new, crazy thing.
And so they just do with it what they want, you know? And they kind of like make it work for them. Like, every once in a while it’s gonna get you down, but if you can use it how you wanna use it, then sure, why not?
Like, it must seem absolutely absurd. These discussions about, like, End it tomorrow. It’s like, why? You know, I’m just posting dumb pictures of my friends.
Rosin: You know, at so many stages of this, I’ve just wanted to push it away and not think about it. But the truth is, like, the depression rates keep rising. Like, there is something at the heart of this. I don’t know that we’ve made all the connections properly yet, but there is something there that we should keep paying attention to. What do you think the next few years are gonna look like? Like, what’s the best-case and worst-case scenario for how we rein this in, now that the surgeon general has said, “Time to do something about it”? Like, I bet if you look back in history, it’s like, the surgeon general issues a report, it’s a symbolic moment, and the culture around things changes. What is the best case and worst case for social media?
Tiffany: I think worst case would be what we were talking about, just really dramatic measures like a blanket age-gate that isn’t based in evidence and there’s kind of no way to undo it and no way to see what effect it has for 10 years. I think that’s the worst-case scenario.
I think best-case scenario would be kind of where we are, like, watching people sort of chip away at the problem, find these specific places where we can intervene, whether that’s educating teenagers, educating parents, or whether it’s putting pressure on Facebook to do things like share data with researchers, which they can be pretty stingy about.
I think, like, that would be really productive. I think, like, part of the issue that we keep running into with this is that there’s not, like, a great headline and there’s not a silver bullet. So it is sort of just, like, the boring answer of like, Well, we need to keep learning, you know?
Rosin: Right. That would be the sexy Atlantic headline.
Tiffany: Yeah. Real nerds here.
Rosin: It would be like, Let’s figure out how social media is affecting the mental health of teenagers and put into place small measures to ameliorate it.
Rosin: I would totally, totally read that article.
Tiffany: Yeah. And start over from scratch in two years, once we are no longer even using any of these platforms we’ve been talking about.
Rosin: Right. That’s the subhead.
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