The age of toxic media

On Oct. 4, social media users across the globe attempted to sign onto Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, but were instead faced with “lost connection” messages.

Many users thought the problem was a poor Wi-Fi connection on their end. However, their internet connection was functioning just fine.

The actual problem was with the platforms themselves.

Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, temporarily shut down all of its platforms after a whistleblower exposed unsettling details about the company’s operations.

Frances Haugen, a former Facebook employee, recently revealed her identity as the whistleblower who uncovered “conflicts of interest” involving the social media giant’s profit margin and the customers it serves.

The documents Haugen released formed the basis of “The Facebook Files,” a Wall Street Journal investigation into the company’s missteps and shifting priorities.

Testifying before Congress last week, Haugen described internal research the company conducted. She said Facebook employees simulated a young person following healthy food recipe accounts. As a result of “engagement-based ranking” and “amplification of interests,” content that includes extreme dieting and pro-anorexia posts was pushed into the test user’s suggested feed.

Facebook’s content designers chose to push negative content into the suggested feeds of vulnerable users – all to maintain unhealthy viewership behaviors.

In an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Haugen explained the social media giant’s own research found teen girls’ body-image issues were worsened by using Instagram. 

The research found teen girls’ mental health worsened after viewing eating disorder-focused content, resulting in them using Instagram more. As they scrolled Instagram, teen girls absorbed more damaging content, creating a negative feedback cycle causing them to “hate their bodies more and more.”

Haugen exposed Facebook’s leaders’ negligence as they continued allowing harmful content and misinformation to toxify their platforms. The company chose to maintain viewership – and revenue from advertisements and sponsored posts people scrolled past – by exposing their users to content that targeted their insecurities.

We don’t have control over social media corporations’ decisions. Nor do we currently have the power to hold them accountable for their negligence. They will continue to employ harmful tactics that prioritize viewership at the expense of their viewers’ mental health until Congressional action curbs the power of social media corporations.

However, we do have methods available to cope with toxic social media.

Being completely removed from social media is not always an option for those who need the platforms for work, school, or connecting with friends and family. There is also a fear that by not engaging in social media content, a person could put themselves at risk of being ostracized by a community.

However, users can limit the time they spend on these applications and view content in a healthier manner.

Take a step back from your everyday social media perusal. Consider how the content truly makes you feel and evaluate what you may be able to do differently to counteract the messaging these companies are targeting you with.

See which applications have the most effect on your mental health on a day-to-day basis and track which platforms you tend to use the most.

Some smartphones have features that allow users to track their screen times, showing which apps they use and which sites they visit the most. 

There are also features that can set up blocks or limitations to the amount of time spent on an application daily. For example, a user could limit themselves to 30 minutes of Instagram a day. 

Limits may help prevent social media users from diving down rabbit holes of harmful social media content, allowing for a better, healthier experience online.

Counseling is also an outlet you can consider to address your anxiety about social media.

Framingham State’s Counseling Center is free for students, and a place where you can discuss any problems, not just social media-related concerns.

One way to contribute to a healthier online environment is by being kind.

It is important for producers and consumers of social media to spread positivity online, and not be unnecessarily hurtful to others.

As content creators, it is our responsibility to share kind, positive, and uplifting posts on social media, rather than negative posts that put others down.

As consumers of social media, we can take the initiative to follow accounts that make us feel good, and unfollow or block accounts that are harmful or toxic to us.

As a real-world community, made up of people with feelings, we need to ensure we are there for one another when these big companies are wreaking havoc on the internet and in our lives. These companies are already making the platforms toxic environments – there’s no need to amplify the negativity.

We cannot control these companies, but we can control ourselves and the words and the images we choose to put out there to others.