Social Media & Mental Health: Why social media companies should (but probably won’t) act responsibly and lead the conversation on mental health

Social media companies are some of the most powerful and influential business entities on the planet. Their decisions shape how the world communicates and how we as individuals consume information. Unlike most large-scale global commercial industries, social media is self-regulating. This puts social media companies in a unique position of global responsibility.

A new report published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists last week said social media companies should be forced by governments to hand over their data for independent research into the risks of social media use.

The socially responsible course of action would be to voluntarily surrender their data and work with, not against those seeking to further understand the links between social media and mental health. However, as has become commonplace with social media companies, they have so far failed to even respond to the latest call for transparency, let alone commit to releasing data.

There is a lesson here for other companies - the persistent failure to engage with or respond to an issue only serves to fuel negative public opinion. You lose your voice in the conversation.

Public trust in social media companies is at an all-time low. A series of scandals and revelations has shifted public opinion. In 2020, the social media industry stands at a crossroads. If social media companies want to regain our trust, they must move away from decision-making based purely in pursuit of profit and start to put the privacy, safety and well-being of their users, front and centre.

Choosing to change course and open their data for independent research would be a very good place to start. There are huge business benefits in doing so and the issue provides social media companies with the perfect opportunity to display their socially responsible credentials. It would be prudent for the companies to act now and work with potential regulators to help shape any future legislation before they lose their voice in the conversation - this is surely a lesson for companies across all industries.

As the most powerful and most tainted by scandal, Facebook is most in need of a change in public perception. So far the signals from Facebook are not positive.

In 2018, Mark Zuckerberg announced changes to the Facebook platform that would prioitise "meaningful social interactions" over "relevant content". "We feel a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being", said Zuckerberg. Ultimately, the changes to the Facebook algorithm failed.

One must ask whether social media companies care about their external reputation. The truth unfortunately is that if the numbers look good, probably not. The Cambridge Analytica scandal would have caused most companies to collapse, but not Facebook. Their global dominance continues unabated; user numbers and the Facebook share price continue to rise.

Ultimately, I don’t think we can wait for social media companies to ‘do the right thing’ and become the socially responsible force for good the world so desperately needs. As users we need to force change. We’re seeing this change happen with the environmental movement with more and more companies transforming their business operations due to the weight of shifting public opinion.

The lesson for businesses across all industries here is not to wait to take action. Do not hold onto the status quo position until it is wrestled from you. Get ahead of the conversation, lead it and make positive changes as soon as possible - while you still can.

Update

Since this blog was published, Facebook announced it would be recruiting an extra 1,000 staff to it’s UK headquarters. Many of the new staff will work as part of Facebook's Community Integrity (CI) team, which builds the tools used to detect and remove harmful content across Facebook's platforms. Facebook say the roles will be focused on addressing issues from spam and abuse to violence and personal safety. This is clearly a move in the right direction and a positive sign. However, given the extent of the problem with harmful content on the site, one can’t help but feel that this is a drop in the ocean and Facebook need to do a lot more if they are to truly shift public opinion.