Séverine Erhel: “Analogies between social networks and drugs create problems”

The excessive use of social networks by the youngest is becoming more and more alarming. Violent content, insults, harassment… The moderation of these platforms is generally limited to non-existent, not enough to reassure parents. Nothing but the operation of algorithms aimed at occupying as much “available brain time” as possible to the detriment of research or other activities. And when faced with the distress of some anxious, depressed, or suicidal children, questions abound. Séverine Erhel, a professor of cognitive psychology at Rennes 2, considers them legitimate, but nevertheless suggests putting certain accusations into perspective.

Express: A recent survey conducted by Ifop shows the unprecedented lack of trust in science among young people, especially those who use social networks intensively. Some researchers criticize his methodology and condemning the “unnecessarily alarming frame”.. And you?

Severine Erhel: These surveys are all about showing correlation without proving causation. But is it because young people are using social media so much that they’re losing faith in science—I personally have a little trouble believing that—or are they using social media more because they don’t believe in science? Polls always have the same problem: because there is no scientific approach, we quickly drift towards sensationalism.

Namely, A scientific study published last January in the journal Jama Pediatrics shows that teenagers who often turn to social networks are “extremely sensitive to the judgments and reactions of others”. What do you think ?

Here again, the question of cause and effect should be raised. The authors show that among 169 recruits, those with more social media access were more sensitive to peer reactions. But are they more sensitive because they go there more often, or are they more sensitive because they go there more often? Scientific literature leans more towards the second hypothesis. It also shows that these are often teenagers who use social networks irregularly and excessively, with specific profiles that can affect their daily life and even lead to interpersonal conflicts (such as guilt) with family or school.

Do you have a composite portrait of these teenagers?

Scientific literature shows that young people who use social networks excessively often experience problems related to self-esteem, such as anxiety, depression and negative body image. We are currently trying to measure the relationship between these different factors, and a bidirectional aspect cannot be ruled out. It could also be that the more an anxious or depressed person uses social media, the more their troubles come to the fore, but researchers have yet to decide this question.

Numerous studies also show that adolescents with these profiles may have inappropriate stress management strategies: instead of working on the cause of their anxiety or depression, they seek refuge in the digital world, for example, by making positive judgments or regulating their stress. by sharing their experiences.

However, it should also be remembered that problematic use of digital technology affects less than 10% of the population. The same is probably true for social media. These are not necessarily particularly bad. Their use is particularly harmful for a small part of the population that presents psychological and socioeconomic risk factors. Mental health prevention efforts should be directed at these people.

Excessive use of these platforms can also be explained by the factor called “Fomo”. What is it about?

“Fear of missing out” culminates in an increasingly common fear that the individual is having enriching experiences in which others feel left out. This translates into a need to keep in touch to see what they are doing. Fomo is an individual tendency that everyone can experience more or less. Social networks play with this social dimension and abuse it to the point of using “dark patterns”—that is, interfaces designed to trap users—that can fuel Phomo for some.

The work of Aarif Alutaybi from the Faculty of Science and Technology at Bournemouth University (UK) illustrates them well. Among them, the fact of encouraging people to share and create groups, presence indicators, notifications, the power to tag other users or even limit the duration of messages, etc.

Would you say that using social media is harmful to learning?

We conducted a study published in 2020, students’ attention during a TD lesson. Our results show that 73% of them engaged in multimedia multitasking behaviors (texting or reading with their phone) and 60% engaged in non-multimedia multitasking (chatting with a neighbor, drawing, etc.). We observed that multimedia multitasking significantly reduced course learning performance, and the more students used social networks in class, the lower their performance. This result contradicts the myth of digital natives, which is the belief that the youngest are used to multitasking because they are born with the Internet and smartphones. In fact, they are like everyone else: their cognitive capacities are not unlimited.

Should depressed or suicidal teenagers be removed from social networks?

It’s a bad solution because it takes away a bad crutch, but it helps them manage their situation. And like any weaning, it can be particularly severe. In order to achieve something more acceptable in everyday life, we need to treat the causes rather than the results, with the support of a health professional who will help reduce the interaction in networks.

And for victims of cyberbullying?

This phenomenon damages the mental health of individuals and is a real problem. But this is an extension of school violence in general. Therefore, we should act on this level with media education. Ditto for cyberbullying of women: I think we need to address this through education about consent and equality between men and women, starting at school.

Can we really say that algorithms can make you addicted to social networks like a drug?

I refrain from confusing hasty analogies between substance addiction and social media addiction, which are, strictly speaking, problematic use, not addiction. Such a comparison is primarily wrong on a neurobiological level, because the extent and consequences of the changes in our brains are not comparable; then in terms of health, because substances such as alcohol or tobacco can cause cancer, not social networks. Finally, this would be tantamount to considering that the problem is caused only by technologies and not by other psychological and socio-economic determinants.

So, yes, predatory technologies are a problem, but let’s stop stigmatizing them until they are at the root of youth mental health issues. Environmental concerns, unemployment fears and the rise of extremism will not disappear with the end of social networks. Fostering a deterministic view of technology creates moral panics in which we are subject to it and can’t do anything about it. Instead, we can regain power at the individual level by developing our own will and at the collective level by creating media literacy programs for the population, favoring free and decentralized platforms, and regulating platforms. government agencies.

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