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Status of Social Media & Mental Health is Complicated

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Close-up of young adults holding phone and coffee; Facebook expands use of AI to prevent negative mental health outcomes

Using social media to build relationships and consume news is now an engrained behavior for most of us (for example, you’re more than likely reading this because it appeared in your feed). While largely positive and joy-filled, social media also provides an outlet for sharing heavy, weighted feelings that sometimes have after-effects.

Late in 2018, Facebook discussed its continued pursuit of enhancing artificial intelligence (AI) tactics in hopes of reducing negative mental health outcomes, like self-harm. By monitoring users’ written and video content, Facebook says it’s already seen success.

UnityPoint Health mental health expert, Jennifer Shaw, LISW, gives her guarded support for the social media giant’s step into this space.

“Ultimately, if there’s any way to prevent a tragic loss of life, then it’s worth it. However, caution needs to be used in identifying triggers for AI response and exploring the effectiveness of those responses.”

In her estimation, the largest pro associated with social media AI is early detection and early response, especially in life-threatening situations.

“In my experience, I’ve seen social media work to raise awareness and encourage people to talk openly about mental illness and their own realities of mental illness. It no longer has to live in the shadows and can be an open dialogue,” Shaw says.

That said, she’s currently not convinced an increased use of AI to identify mental health problems could offer more solutions.

“Mental health diagnosis is a very individualized, person-centered experience and can be very subjective. A con with using AI is the more concrete defining of what mental illness is and how that looks, which could increase stigma and deter people from talking openly on social media,” Shaw says.

There are also the issues of cyber bullying and general lack of interpersonal awareness, both of which Shaw says only add fuel to the negative online dialogue fire.

“By using social media as a means of communication, we’ve lost the personalized delivery of messages, which opens society up to saying and doing things we normally wouldn’t in a public setting. This in turn increases depression, anxiety, sleep issues, isolation and sets us up for an unrealistic expectation of reality.”

If you notice uncharacteristic, possibly even scary, postings from a social friend, Shaw says keeping the conversation going with that individual is important.

“There’s power in asking, ‘Are you okay?’ If you feel someone is at-risk, contact parents and/or the authorities for a welfare check. If you fear someone may be suicidal, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 is always available for free, confidential help.”

Whether online or in our personal interactions, taking an active role to encourage others to receive mental health support has never mattered more.

“We can all prioritize receiving mental health help, first by making sure we’re taking care of our own – checking in with ourselves, making sure we’re doing well and if we’re not, finding someone to talk to. The more we can have an open discussion, the more likely individuals are to explore seeking help when needed.”