Wednesday 30 January 2019 8:03 am

Antisocial media: How to reform our narcissistic internet culture

The social media and technology backlash – or “techlash” – has begun, and the tech companies are scrambling to catch up.

Earlier this month, Sheryl Sandberg talked compellingly at the Munich DLD conference about Facebook’s challenges and the company’s acceptance of greater responsibility around the big issues of data safety, misinformation, and transparency.

Good stuff, yes. But what was striking was the lack of acknowledgment of Facebook’s responsibility for the direct correlation between social media and the rapid rise of mental health issues, depression, and rates of suicide.

This issue has tragically come back under the spotlight recently, with the media around the suicide of a 14-year-old girl. Her father has put some of the blame on the disturbing posts she viewed on Instagram, and last Sunday health secretary Matt Hancock announced that he would consider banning social media platforms that failed to remove harmful content.

It is hard to deny that the internet has created some unsettling byproducts, especially among young people. According to research by psychology professor Jean Twenge, 2012 saw a dramatic shift in the behaviours of those born since 1995. Notably, 2012 was the year in which smartphone usage reached 50 per cent, with more than three quarters of US teens owning one.

Many smartphone trends are positive. Young adults now drink and smoke less, have less sex (teenage pregnancies are dropping rapidly), and are physically safer than ever before.

But the negatives are significant: they socialise and date less, and spend little unsupervised time together – ultimately, they are less independent than previous generations. The number of US teens who got together with friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40 per cent from 2000 to 2015, with hours now being spent in bedrooms on devices – a trend that I’m sure we’ll also see in the UK.

With the rapid growth in use has come a culture of narcissism.

We now scroll endlessly through others’ perfect, rose-tinted lives, and seek to compete. Fear of missing or being left out is everywhere. We all compare our innermost insecurities with others’ exciting and colourful exteriors, and we draw unfavourable, anxiety-inducing comparisons. And if that’s the case for adults, think how much more detrimental the impact can be on impressionable teenagers.

Big companies might like to talk about the work they’re doing on data security and the policing of fake news, but so far they’ve been slow to acknowledge their contribution to this trend. Until they do, maybe we should focus more on what we can do as humans, teachers, and parents within society to combat these behaviours.

We don’t need to ban platforms, but we do need to shift culture away from narcissism and back to altruism. Rare glimpses do exist on social media, as we see social movements forged, causes publicised, ideological debates furthered. Instead of turning away from the internet, we can aim to be more aware about the content we read and share, and the platforms we use.

We need to promote kindness, nuance, and open-mindedness over groupthink and the need to be validated by proving an opponent wrong or showing off. Sharing social media shouldn’t be about “you”, but rather what you can do, the knowledge, skills, and insight you have to share. And it should be based firmly in the real world, not in a fantasy online reality.

Business has a role to play (and I am certainly trying with my new venture), but as a society, we’re better than this. We have the power to vote against the current business models with our eyeballs. The social media platforms encouraging this shift in behaviour may or may not change, but we don’t need to wait for them. We can develop kinder, healthier online habits ourselves, just by thinking for a moment before we click.

And we can make the internet a less damaging, antisocial place to be for young minds.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.