Tag Archives: social media

School District Sues Social Media for Harm to Mental Health

As a clinical psychologist who frequently works with families, teens, and young adults, I have definitely seen some detrimental effects of social media, in particular TikTok.

In 2021 and 2022, F74, also known as Floor 74, was a TikTok trend that spread like wildfire and claimed to take you to a parallel dimension in your sleep. The purpose of the “challenge” was to survive your trip to another dimension, as failure to do so meant a person would be stranded forever in the parallel dimension. You would wake up, and everyone you loved would be gone. Teenagers, already notoriously bad sleepers, were coming to my office with severe anxiety, fear, and insomnia. They were convinced that something bad would happen if they fell asleep. These were honor roll students at some of the top private schools and school districts in Washington, DC, and they were scared to go to sleep.

Earlier this month, 1/18/23, a landmark lawsuit was filed which alleges that the Seattle school district and its students have been harmed by social media’s negative effects on youth mental health, academic performance, and daily functioning. It could lead to sweeping changes in the industry. Read more: As Seattle schools sue social media companies, legal experts split on potential impact

Seattle Public Schools alleges that the social media companies cited, which include Meta, Google, Snapchat, and ByteDance, the company behind TikTok, designed their platforms intentionally to grow their younger audience bases and exploit the psychology and neurophysiology of their child/adolescent users into spending more and more time on their platforms, according to the complaint filed earlier this month.

There is skepticism that such cases, this being the first of its kind initiated by a huge school system, will be dismissed in court. After all, people do not sue online gambling or pornography websites for their addictions. However, child development and neuropsychological research may prove otherwise.

In the late eighties, Augusta, Georgia family medicine researcher, professor, and physician, Dr. Paul Fischer, first implicated Camel cigarettes, the product of RJ Reynolds tobacco, for their advertising campaign using cartoon depictions of Joe Camel, as holding great appeal for children and teenagers.

In December 1991, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study in which young children were asked to match brand logos with products. The study showed that for children who were age six, 91.3% matched Joe Camel with Camel cigarettes, nearly the same amount who matched the Disney Channel logo with Mickey Mouse. In the same JAMA volume, another study was published comparing how well Joe Camel was recognized among high school students versus adults over age 21. The study concluded that high school students were more likely to recognize Joe Camel (97.7% vs 72.2%), understand the product being advertised (97.5% vs. 67%), and identity the Camel brand (93.6% vs 57.7%). The research also noted that Camel’s share of smokers under 18 had risen from 0.5% to 32.8% during the cartoon character’s campaign over three years, indicating that it was particularly effective at reaching younger smokers-to-be. After years of expensive legal wrangling funded by the powerful tobacco lobby, RJ Reynolds removed the Joe Camel campaign. [Disclosure, Paul Fischer, MD is my paternal uncle]. See: Joe Camel Cartoons.

The child/adolescent brain, unlike adult brains, is continuing to develop executive functioning: problem-solving, analyzing, self-monitoring, planning and organizing, impulse control, and metacognition skills well into their twenties. As such, decision-making and influence is different for children and teens, when compared to adults. Overuse of social media platforms has a different effect on the developing neural pathways of children and adolescents than it does on adult brains. Whatever the legal outcome(s), recognition that children/teens are not mini-adults is crucial.  Also see: The Dangers of Mini Me.

On News Anxiety

For as long as people have had widespread access to daily news, there has been news-related anxiety. But the age of social media has dramatically increased the amount of time we spend keeping up on current events. After 9/11, while I was completing my doctoral internship, many clients told me they were watching the news for 8 to 10 hours a day.

Instead of limiting news consumption to once a day, e.g., reading the morning paper or watching the local news before heading to work, many of us are immersed in a neverending news cycle. Alerts throughout the day make it hard to avoid a never ending barrage of information. Neuropsychological research indicates that when we hear a ping on our phone, it may contribute to hypervigilance.

Today, at least 1 in 5 Americans get their news through social media. A conservative estimate is that the average inter-webs user spends more than 4 hours scrolling per day. Every year, that number steadily increases. The term “doomscrolling” describes when the consumption of negative news events leads to information overload and becomes a compulsive habit.

While some amount of worry can be useful for planning ahead, it is easy to cross the line from staying informed to inducing anxiety or exacerbating a dysphoric mood.  Individuals who suffer from anxiety or mood disorders are particularly vulnerable.  The pressure to stay up-to-date on serious topics like COVID-19, civil unrest, violence in every form, and climate change can make it difficult to stop doomscrolling. We are survival driven and searching for information is built into our frontal lobes.

Many empathic people have expressed to me that it might even feel irresponsible to avoid news that is negative. ‘If people are suffering, why am I such a wimp that I can’t even read about it?’ To be informed is important, to be vicariously traumatized saps our energy and will to proceed.

How to Manage News Anxiety; the Clinical Psychology Research:

  • There is no “one size fits all” solution.
    The key is to find an approach that works for you, which starts with recognizing your triggers or personal vulnerabilities. Try to pay attention to what happens right before you feel the urge to reach for your phone or tablet. If your scrolling is brought on by certain thoughts, feelings, or situations, or centers around a particular subject, take note.
  • Acknowledge addiction potential.
    People who experience addiction have a higher likelihood of relapsing when exposed to certain triggers, e.g. walking by the bar they used to frequent, seeing an ashtray, or being near slot machines. The same goes for people with digital addictions like social media or doomscrolling. If you are particularly consumed or obsessed with a specific subject, limit yourself to spending 15-30 minutes reading about it each day. Set a timer.
  • Curate News and Social Media Consumption.
    Swearing off social media altogether can be too big of a leap for most people. Instead, think about ways you can alter the way you use social media. For example, if there are accounts that you notice often cause you anxiety, mute or unfollow them. Also, consider disabling alerts for social media platforms. This way, you will be less tempted to open apps throughout the day.
  • Incorporate Positive Stimuli.
    When breaking a habit like doomscrolling, finding positive activities to supplement the time you spend reading news can make a big difference. Try engaging with something non-educational that simply serves to make you smile. This could be exploring a light-hearted hashtag, like #catsoftiktok, visiting the wholesome page on Reddit, or watching an animated show or movie. Though it may sound silly, empirical studies have shown that watching cute animal videos can measurably lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety.
  • Move and Stretch.
    Disrupting your thought processes with physical movement is another strategy to break a rote scrolling cycle of doomscrolling. Get up and walk around. Set a loud timer that’s across the room, one that forces you to get out of your chair or bed.
  • Seek Professional Help.
    If you are still having trouble gaining control of your scrolling or social media consumption, there are therapists who specialize in helping clients who struggle with social media use and anxiety.

The Takeaway:

  • Timing and dosage.
    Limit your time and the amount of news that you consume. If you tend to have a harder time at night with anxiety, maybe watch/read/scroll news in the morning only. During times of trouble such as the pandemic, insomnia, was a significant symptom of our anxiety and stress. We need to avoid and monitor as much as possible the stimuli that may add to our already dysregulated bodies.
  • QC.
    Pick news material that is factual, thorough, and data driven. Keep it brief and succinct.
  • Balance.
    Mix doom-scrolling with something lighter. watching something that makes you smile is good for you. Those of us of a certain age used to wake up on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons with eager anticipation. They transported us away from the rest of our week, past and upcoming.
Embolden Psychology

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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