In this edition of The Social Media Report, I am reflecting on a topic that I have researched for many years, the balance that social media strikes between being a force for good and a cause of harm. It’s a delicate balance, if you believe the numbers released this week from one prominent institution. But if you ask me, qualitative research that digs into the outliers would be far more useful to uncover.
I also have as usual my must-read articles of the week. Subscribe below if you’ve been sent this, and you’ll get every edition soon as it’s out.
What harm is social media truly inflicting on younger generations? Three Oxford University surveys of over 400,000 people were released this week, and they show that social media has had no greater an affect mental health than TV in the 90’s.
We’ve all seen The Social Dilemma. We all know screens deprive you of sleep and give you square eyes. We know why Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have to remove so much harmful content every hour of every day. We would all be forgiven for thinking there’s more harm than good on social media today.
But this latest piece of research from Oxford University has looked back 30 years, and it looks in particular at screens, from TV to phones to social networks, which have long been associated with negative effects on wellbeing. The report shows no ‘smoking gun’ link between the use of technology and mental health issues, and no evidence that technologies have become more harmful over time. It’s great to see all’s well in the world, but I do find we’re dealing with extremes, and when polling half a million people, the outliers fade into insignificance.
Online harms are in the balance: this whole topic is an area I spent a considerable amount of my time over the last two years researching. On Facebook alone, bullying and harassment has caused content removals to double from Q3 2020 to Q4 2020, up from 3.5m posts requiring removal, to 6.3m. That’s 3,000 posts an hour deemed to be breaking the rules on harassment grounds requiring removal from Facebook alone. On Instagram it was a similar story, doubling in the last three months of 2020 from 2.6m to 5m. But amid the trolls and the bots, the fake news and the online harms, I do feel that social media brings more good to us than bad, and it’s down to education, not regulation, to protect people from the harmful content they could see.
The extremes, I would say, are where this story lies, and where our end game should be. The research team at Oxford paint the perfect picture themselves: ‘These results don’t mean that technology is all good for teens, or all bad, or getting worse for teenagers or not. Even with some of the larger data sets available to scientists, it is difficult conclusively to determine the roles of technologies in young people’s lives, and how their impacts might change over time.’
We need to keep working on ways to mitigate harm from the negative effects of social media on our health, and accentuate the good. Resting on what laurels Oxford’s research brings is not enough. You can watch my TED talk on this topic here, which went up on TED.com last year.
My must reads from this week
Here are the stories that I have been reading this week.
World leaders and social media
Facebook’s final oversight decisions go to Clegg: an in depth look by the NY Times at Nick Clegg and his role in overseeing the decision over whether Donald Trump should be on Facebook. The former British deputy prime minister has carved out an influential role at the heart of silicon valley.
49,000 surveyed on how to deal with rule-breaking world leaders: in a survey carried out by Twitter, which aims to improve on how the network, and ultimately others, treat those in power.
Twitter has suspended a new Trump-linked Twitter account: the social network has suspended an account with the username @DJTDEsk which was reportedly created by Trump's staff to post updates from his new website. Trump had let it be known that he planned releasing tweet-like statements on his own website, which he then hoped would be circulated on Twitter and other social networks.
Clubhouse has announced creator programme shortlist: the new Creator First programme from Clubhouse will involve funding a set of shows, and the shortlist includes an internet scavenger hunt show, a food panel show, a k-pop show and serial killer speed dating.’ Whether you’ve tried the social network or not, the list of top creators is worth reading for the sheer creativity.
Snapchat Creator Marketplace unveiled: Snap has announced that it will launch a creator marketplace within weeks which will matchmake brands with influencers and people who make lenses.
Facebook funds journalist newsletters to the tune of $5m: the social network’s plan is to help independent writers attract an audience and make money through the social media network.
Facebook unveils Neighborhoods: FB’s new addition is for location-based social networking, like it’s 2012 all over again. Exclusive launch taking place in North America only.
TikTok launches sound-sharing tech: TikTok has announced new tools for developers, which include a login kit that would to let users sign into apps using their TikTok account and for sound sharing.
Streaming video ads to rise 40% this year in the US: a report by eMarketer shows that US advertisers are expected to spend $11.4bn on streaming TV ads on services such as Hulu in 2021, up from $8.1bn last year.
Netflix ‘N-Plus’ teased through user research: Netflix is polling users about some quite telling topics, which include podcasts and user-generated playlists of shows and music.
Southeast Asia sees booming social commerce market: research by Bain & Co show s that buying though social media accounted for 44% of Southeast Asia's e-commerce market in 2020, with Vietnam and Thailand leading the way.
How Facebook’s working to repair its reputation: a fascinating read on Mark Zuckerberg's plan to repair Facebook's image through talking about product more than policy, and upping his media appearances.
Data wars: with Apple’s new opt in system, reports show startlingly few users are choosing to share their data. This is proving troublesome for the app makers whose data troves have been a source of value and power, which is worth keeping a close eye on. The near future will be markedly different to the present with specific regard to how data is gathered and used on phone and app users. Worth a read: Apple takes on the Internet, from the FT.
Google’s new office work policy announced: CEO Sundar Pichai released a memo to staff about how staff are expected to work in the future, with 20% of staff fully remote, 20% to move offices, and 60% to return to offices a few days a week.
Trackers, locks, paths and Amazon: Amazon has announced a partnership Tile and smart lock maker Level to beef up its street-level mesh network. Think doorbells, locks, people and parcels all creating a digital network.
Spy chiefs look at smart city cyber threats: the FT looks into the safety concerns over smart cities: “The NCSC advice, seen by the FT, does not name any companies or countries of concern. But China is a lead supplier of smart city technology, which uses networks of cameras and sensors to improve the efficiency of services from parking and transport to energy use.”
Harvard PhD Evelyn Douek interviewed by Wired on why social media must be moderated: “It’s time to recognise that the First Amendment–inflected approach to online speech governance that dominated the early internet no longer holds. Instead, platforms are now firmly in the business of balancing societal interests.”
How audio social media is used in the Middle East: the NY Times looks at new data from SensorTower which shows Clubhouse is being used in the Middle East. The app has been downloaded 1.1M times in the region, where its users see it as an open forum to discuss politics and taboo issues.
Brain-computer interface startup rings changes: change afoot at Neuralink, which has lost its cofounder (the other, a certain Elon Musk, is still there).
The case for moving back to your hometown: a long read from The Atlantic. I did this 12 years ago, leaving London, and never looked back.
The Social Media Report is written by Drew Benvie, founder & CEO of Battenhall.