Guinea pigs on a social media diet - my latest for The Australian

One in eight Facebook users is on the platform so much that it disrupts their sleep, work, parenting and relationships, according to Facebook’s own internal research, leaked to The Wall Street Journal.

One in eight, or 12.5 per cent, is a large number considering Facebook’s 2.9 billion users, as this could amount to 360 million people.

Is social media addictive? And is it the new big tobacco?

Experts differ in their views. In a symposium I recently organised for Quillette, Australian psychiatrist Tanveer Ahmed likened Facebook to Big Macs, enjoyable in moderation, but unhealthy in excess.

Excessive use of social media can lead to all sorts of harms, at both individual and societal level. From young men getting lost in the rabbit holes of radical political content, to teenage girls fixating on extreme dieting and fitness material, social media creates an endless hall of mirrors ready to exploit any vulnerability in the human psyche.

The alleged kidnapper of Cleo Smith, Terence Kelly, is reported to have constructed a make-believe world on Facebook using multiple accounts to portray a family life that did not exist in reality.

Because Facebook does not require proof of identity, users can create multiple accounts, children can create accounts without parental permission and bad actors can create accounts with the intention of harming others. Facebook is aware of these problems, but does little to tackle them.

New insights into the toxicity of social media have come from the cache of documents leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen. Of the documents, perhaps the most damning of Facebook have been the revelations that the company knows its Instagram product harms vulnerable teenage girls. While the research that Facebook conducted into its users’ mental health is not methodologically robust enough to pass scientific peer review, it is important in that it adds to a growing body of research that has. The revelation that Facebook’s internal research has made these findings is also important because it demonstrates that Facebook cannot hide behind plausible deniability.

American research psychologist Jean Twenge argues that teen mental health is in crisis as a direct result of excessive social media use. One study, conducted in the UK, with a sample of 10,000 adolescents, found heavy social media use corresponded with increased experiences of online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem, poor body image and depressive symptoms.

Boys who used social media for more than five hours per day were twice as likely to be depressed as boys who used social media less than one hour per day. For girls who used social media heavily, they were three times more likely to be depressed than girls who used it sparingly.

Why are girls so vulnerable to the negative effects of social media? The reasons are unknown, but experts have speculated that young girls are at risk to the endless social comparisons that social media induces. Instagram places all girls into a de facto global beauty pageant, with professional Instagram models at the apex, and everybody else scrambling below. As evolutionary psychologist Diana Fleischman wrote in Quillette: “Social media results in a toxic mix of the pleasure of curating and seeing the best version of ourselves and discovering that these best versions of ourselves have a merely mediocre rank in the largest social hierarchy on Earth.”

Social media may also be contributing to the social contagion of mental disorders. Sociologists who have studied network effects understand that depression, self-harm and suicide can be contagious among adolescent social groups. And the statistics showing an increase in self-harm in teenage girls during the age of social media are stark.

In 2007-08 in Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare records that 359 per 100,000 girls were hospitalised for self-harm. By 2016-17, this had doubled to 686 hospitalisations per 100,000.

In the US, hospital admissions for self-harm have tripled among 10 to 14-year-old girls over the past 10 years. And teens are twice as likely to be depressed as they were only a decade ago.

Researchers are also puzzled by a large increase in teenage girls declaring a transgender identity and bodily distress. American physician and public health researcher Lisa Littman hypothesised a new type of gender dysphoria propelled by social factors. She coined the term rapid onset gender dysphoria after surveying parents who reported that their child suddenly manifested symptoms of gender dysphoria after being immersed in social media, or after a friend in their peer group had come out as transgender.

Although ROGD is not yet recognised in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or the International Classification of Diseases, and the link between social media use and increased rates of gender dysphoria is speculative, it is a hypothesis worthy of exploration.

To be fair, some experts have argued the current focus on the potential harms of social media resembles a moral panic, much like previous panics around video games and violent media. While social media undoubtedly can contribute to harm, there are upsides that should not be ignored. Some have also argued increased focus on social media’s downsides is a Trojan horse that will lead to more policing of political speech on Facebook, to the detriment of conservatives.

While these counter-arguments are worthy of consideration, we must also remember the social world is a complex system where even tiny changes in one variable can have cascading, systemic effects. The truth is that it is simply too early to know what the long-term impact of social media will be, and today’s users are guinea pigs in a vast, unchecked sociological experiment.

Claire Lehmann is founding editor of Quillette.


And therein lies the crux of the issue. Given how much time people spend online be it for business or recreation then it’s long overdue that these social media platforms are designated as Critical Infrastructure Services.

In doing so it allows Government to enact legislation to safeguard people online. Something as simple as forcing a platform like Facebook to require all users to submit multiple forms of ID to open and use an account on that platform would drastically reduce the level of abuse from anonymous accounts, to say nothing of bot farms. The benefits of this would be seen almost immediately. Simply put you force people to behave online in the same manner they would if they were in the same room as the other person. Granted it’s not the panacea to solve all our online woes, but it’s an essential first step if you accept that social media in whatever form it happens to take is here to stay.


But be careful what you wish for. I quite understand your vectors there, but wanting the government to decide who can say what is not without its perils.


So we’d be left with a situation where, in the U.S., government would require ID to open a Facebook account, but wouldn’t require ID to vote. Because…reasons!

[Edit] Don’t get me wrong - I agree with your proposal.


Dear advice-columnist @claire ,

I fear I am becoming addicted to Quillette and Quillette Circle. Where can I find help? Are there other places I should trust? Should I look for darker parts of the IDW? Or more intellectual parts? Or make a web of my own, with only a trusted few within it? Or must I give up the Web altogether?

Actually, I agree with the conundrum you pose,

But it is a real problem. I had a niece who took her own life, at age 20, after years of depression, likely multiplied by her engagement with social media, the description that she had been bullied for many years, but I’m not sure the bullying occurred much in physical life. It might mostly have been electronic, by social media, where cues are hard to read.

And yes, it does seem that

At my university, we have strong standards for any sort of experiments involving human subjects, and strict attention to ethical implications. But since “social networking” is not presented to us as an ‘experiment’ which might have hypotheses and defined methods, it is unchecked.


If we use the US Constitution’s 1st Amendment as the template (Facebook being a US registered company) Government can in fact take a step back and let the founding principles do the hard yards. The 1st Amendment effectively gives carte blanche up to the point of directly inciting violence. All Government needs to do then is insist on putting a face (real identity) to a comment online.

If you’re not prepared to own a comment in real life, then don’t say it.


I think this is a good goal in principle, but the horse has already escaped the barn. Even here in Quillette Circle, we have known cases of people working dual accounts. “Sock puppets”, we sometimes call them. It is unfortunate that probably the majority of posters work from identities which don’t trace back to real personae, and so it is very hard to hold anyone accountable. The principle of free speech, under the First Amendment, depends in part on knowing ‘who said what’, and evaluating it based on what we know about the ‘who’ who expressed it.

If the horse has left the barn, how do we get back to this accountability?

I do not post under my ‘real name’, but there are quite enough clues that you could find my ‘real self.’ I do not post anything for which I would run from the consequences. But I am so old-fashioned in this. Many will say, “yes, perhaps I said those words, but surely I didn’t mean it that way.” I am not at fault.

Civil discourse doesn’t really work under those terms.


Interestingly, this is the only area where millennials were in complete alignment with Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Coddling of the American Mind. Most understand the dangers of social media only to well, and intend to restrict social media access for their own children to a far greater degree, in terms of the limitations placed by parents of the most recent generations.


But if users had to identify themselves would they be as honest about their opinions? And on forums where discussion of ideas is the purpose why should the ‘who’ matter? Shouldn’t the ideas stand on their own regardless who utters them?
While I totally support identification requirements for social media usage, a separate public user name to protect privacy seems a fair call.


A good start might be to require the platform to identify posters/users in the event someone has been slandered. This means that creating a login would require ID, and that information would be stored by the platform. Certainly there are potential areas of abuse, the structure would need to be secure and “trusted” in some fashion. Smarter people that me could undoubtedly build a secure process.

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But then there’s that long tradition of anonymous letters to the editor. Does the government really have the authority to do that? I notice that you yourself don’t use your real name here nor do probably most posters. It that the government’s business?

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And as @RayAndrews says, there’s also a place for anonymous letters to the editor. And many publications, including Quillette, running articles under pseudonyms, where there is a for the protection of the identity of the author. There is a place for that.

But usually the discussion goes better if we understand more fully the contexts and points-of-view from which we coming. And in this case, the problem @claire is wrestling with is that we don’t know the motives and intentions of the publishers. More openness is a good thing more often than not.

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I found this to be an interesting read today.

Virtual/internet reality vs actual reality, but less clear which is the tail and which is the dog these days.

I have no idea from a practical level what strategic advantage these new Chinese missiles have over garden-variety slow-poke missiles. But if this were the playground and we were picking teams, being on the team that picked “gender” vs the team that picked “STEM” doesn’t feel like a winning strategy.


I think back to the opening scene of Star Wars , in which R2D2, in which R2D2 has the holographic message of Princess Leia, to be played for Obiwan. That’s kind of our first powerful exposure to the concept of the hologram. That view of a hologram wasn’t really very powerful, but it was a taste of things to come/ Over the years, we have been introduced to powerful holograms, until the gaming industry began to develop virtual reality, in which we are surrounded by hologram, and see nothing else.

But the next step would be if we inverte our understanding of the world, and say that the Princess Leia of the hologram was just as much the ‘real’ princess, who needs to make the convincing appeal for help, and that from her perspective, Luke, and Ben Kenobe, are the virtual reality which she sees. How can we prove it is not otherwise, that we are real and the hologram is not?

Bari Weiss mentions Star Trek TNG and the holodeck. Do you recall that Dr. Moriarty escaped from a Sherlock Holmes context, and has achieved some degree of existence outside of the holodeck, and can threaten the control of the ship? Perchance that is our situation already.

The world of crypto/DeFi/blockchain may trigger new ways of interacting on forums in large scale. It is hard to get one’s head around these at the moment but transparent anonymity, theoretically, looks promise in a myriad of ways. In practice, we will find out! I think 4chan got the prinicple idea right, but only archaically. The blockchain genius people are hard at work solving these social communication issues as we speak!

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But blockchain demands exponentially increasing electrical energy to sustain its life! The cost of anonymity will be steep. Only the rich and famous will be able to afford anonymity.

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From what I see, the big problems like you have mentioned are being tirelessly worked on…a work in progess you can say. Layer 2! ZK-Rollups! It is amazing how many people are doing exciting things right now to not only solve current problems but envision and create viable systems for a truly decentralized economy.

I look at blockchain evolution like the telephone evolution. Right now we are at the rotary dial/touch tone phase of blockchain tech, or maybe even earlier than that. We cannot really imagine the practical realities around adoption once we get to the smartphone level of blockchain/DeFi/NFT/etc.