Dossier 10: Screen New Deal

A change of tone: Social media and mental health

After a few unsteady years for Facebook, another blow hits the social media giant in 2021: Frances Haugen, a project manager on the civic misinformation team, left the company in May, taking with her thousands of pages of internal documents, showing evidence of the societal harm the social network knows it has caused and how they continue to choose their own interest and profit over this problem. Could it finally be time to #DeleteFacebook? While we may find joy and connection in our online lives, social media can also worsen our mental health. Facebook’s own internal research shows that the constant flood of visually and substantially polished content affects the daily perception we have of our own lives. It’s not just the picture perfect minutia that have a negative impact, although seeing influencers’ elegant meals and toned abs when you wake up will make you question your own food intake and work-out routine daily. It’s also the perfection surrounding every aspect of life that keeps you on your toes. The superiority seeps into the core of social matter. Everyone seems to know and do everything the right way. When you don’t, it’s difficult to have a presence online that isn’t shamed or ridiculed in some way. 

Influencers can make anything look good #ikeameatballs

To change is human. This pertains to superficial things like housing, clothes or your favourite foods, but just as much to meaningful things like your body or your mindset. On social media, everything you say is seen as the unwavering truth of your life, preserved indefinitely for others to point out. It creates a barrier to say anything of value and complexity. At the same time, the fast-paced nature of social media forces us to make split second decisions on critical current affairs, when we should take time to think them over and shape our opinion with diligent research. On top of that, we might be contained within filter bubbles, only seeing opinions that match our own, shaped by algorithms analysing our movements and activities on social platforms. It’s a hard place to figure out your worldview, but it’s the place people expect it the most. 

When reality shifted last year, for many of us life was lived online. Online school, online jobs, online socialising. If you hadn’t felt the scrutiny the internet brings before, you were bound to feel it now. In a time of political and social turmoil, the internet was bombarded with views from left to right, progressive and conservative. Facebook’s executives stand by their statement that social media is not the main cause of polarisation, but it is where most of these debates are played out and where mob mentality allows for mass attacks. The social network has been unsuccessful – and unwilling1 – at figuring out how to provide safety measures that reign in these problems. Its algorithm favours the exciting and divisive, creating an online space full of angry comments and polarising arguments. The more provocative your statement, the more interaction you will get. Their comment sections are poorly regulated, allowing misinformation to spread wide and far. On January 6, 2021, the world saw the consequences of this when the Capitol building in the United States was stormed after Trump’s baseless claims of a rigged election, just days before Joe Biden was to be sworn in as the new president.

When you spend a lot of time online, and the physical world has stopped turning, you can lose a sense of yourself. As you develop a larger internet persona, contact with your body diminishes and you move through life as two separate entities: your passive physique and your active mind. Through this disengagement with your body, you might view your online actions as someone else’s doing rather than you being in control. Consequences become invisible to you, because they are not related to your person but this disembodied version of yourself with its own consciousness. Online and offline worlds drift apart. This is called the online disinhibition effect.

This effect contributes to people changing their regular behaviour to something more excessive when online. The relative anonymity and invisibility allow them to more freely express themselves. The consequences are not as immediate as when you say something hurtful to someone’s face, and neither is the guilt tied to that. Because the body is not engaged, you enter a sort of dissociative state in which you can believe the online world doesn’t consist of real people, since you are also not a real person. These factors make social media full of bare emotions, contributing to the arguments and finger pointing prevalent in Facebook’s polarising comment sections and to the newly prevalent online ‘cancel culture’.

Anonymity on the internet, The New Yorker, 1993

When someone does or says something unjust or harmful to others, they should be held accountable. In modern social media terms, this is ‘cancel culture’2. This culture prevails in every corner of the online world and yields for no one. Cancelling someone3 should only be done when there is asymmetrical power between the cancelled (higher power) and the canceller (lower power)4. It is often the only way to cast a stone at those holding positions of power and control and have them take responsibility for their actions. This happened in October 2020, when the (since-deleted) Instagram account @calloutdutchartinstitutions was brought to life. Every post contained anonymous stories about misconduct at Dutch art institutions, often naming the perpetrator by their full name and function. The account was made to hold art schools accountable for the toxic environments they create, when nothing else could be done. Most students had brought these issues before their respective boards, department heads, or confidential counsellors with no result, so had to resort to more public measures in order to get accountability. However, those in power often remain in power, as they have more capacity to fight back or simply ignore the issues. Generally, this kind of public shaming of authority figures leads nowhere. It can even lead to negative results for those who make their experiences public. In the comment sections of @calloutdutchartinstitutions posts about abuse, many resorted to blaming the victim to protect their teachers. One student who named and shamed a department head had police come to their door for ‘defamation’. The department head faced no consequences, and continued teaching as before.

As the world watched their leaders fail to keep them safe from the pandemic, social and political consciousness grew online, especially with the active Generation Z population. It became even more important to always actively and publicly do the right thing. The social scrutiny grew, and with this so did cancel culture. Only people weren’t purely attacking the powerful anymore, but also the members within their respective communities. Everyone was watching everyone. One toe out of line and you’d be shunned. And with life mostly online, people grew scared to voice their opinions. Unfortunately, as you are expected to make a statement on the internet immediately, even saying nothing meant something. Social media turned into a war zone of polarising comment sections, call-out videos, and suspended accounts. 


When Haugen revealed Facebook’s management issues, the extent to which they don’t care may have come as a surprise to some, but it was far from surprising to see evidence of the toxicity of social media. Especially among its young users on Instagram, Facebook’s internal reports have shown that they know it causes body image issues and contributes to symptoms of anxiety and depression. These reports are from 2019, but have become all the more relatable during a time when the only thing we consumed was social media. And yet we don’t want to stop. Billions of people use social media every day, accepting its flaws with very little apprehension, to combat the FOMO5 and keep themselves entertained. The bigger Facebook’s monopoly on social media grows, the less incentive they have to make the network more secure and amicable—meaning the users, as much as possible, have to take this into their own hands. With this in mind, as users we receive responsibility we never asked for, and have to think about the way we shape our expanding online lives without losing our sense of self and community.

As online life grows bigger during corona, giving a boost to an already accelerating phenomenon, we need to ask ourselves how we will create a safer online environment, while still maintaining the cultures and values that come with it. Where social media is now mainly the breeding ground for arguments, it overshadows the possibilities that are there to grow a better understanding of each other, a way to come together rather than believe we are individuals roaming the earth on our own. We need to rethink the ways in which we interact with other people and ourselves, the pace with which we have to keep up, and if we can do this with the infrastructures that are already there or if we need to create new ones. Holding people accountable is one thing, but what we do after to provide space for learning and growth is more important. Nobody is perfect, and if we pretend to be, nobody will gain anything from it. It’s time to elevate the part of social media that shows all our flaws and wisdom, bypass the perfection, and become a community that stands with each other instead of opposite to one another. It’s time to show the dinner plates in their before and after state, maybe even the in between. 



1 Many argue that Facebook intentionally does not address these issues: divisiveness on the platform can lead to more revenue. Facebook’s engagement was on the decline when they introduced the algorithm—after, their daily users went up as people took to the comment sections of viral posts oriented towards sensationalism.
2 There has been a long debate about the terminology of cancel culture. The political right has appropriated cancel culture as something threatening their freedom of speech, and sees it as punishment to push political correctness. They want to cancel cancel culture, to push back against the powerless who have found a way to fight back. But, for many, cancel culture does not seek to actually ‘cancel’ a person, but rather have them own up to their mistakes, take accountability and learn from it. This is also referred to as ‘accountability culture’.
3 Cancelled: To cancel someone means to stop giving support to that person, in drastic cases attempting to ostracise them from their platforms and (online) social spheres.
4 Read also: We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice by adrienne maree brown.
5 FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. Refers to the fear, feeling or perception that others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are.