It’s not so much social media that are making us unhappy, it’s more, inequality

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It’s everywhere. Social media is very bad for you and especially bad for your children. Some  of them have even committed suicide because of it, allegedly. Scientists have ‘connected’ it with depression, anxiety and suicidal impulses. They find that those who are heavy users are more likely to be depressed, anxious or suicidal. It’s a correlation of course. We don’t really know whether it’s that the already depressed, anxious and suicidal are particularly drawn to social media because they get something from it, perhaps company, solace, diversion, that they’re not getting in their social world or whether the social media activity made them so or even merely exacerbated an existing condition.

Politicians and journalists hate mere correlations. They want cause and effect and they’re going to get it, even if they have feed us lies about it. There is no convincing evidence that social media engagement is worsening mental health levels in the UK or anywhere else. For all we know, social media may actually be doing us more good than harm, linking the isolated and the lonely, providing mental stimulation to those otherwise deprived of it. Aren’t chronic isolation and boredom really bad for your mental health?

This is a classic ‘moral panic’ where media attention and politicians seeing career opportunities in campaigning against something, amplify its significance and construct a crisis. You can see it happening as I write as newspapers foreground tragic stories of depression or suicide where parents have made some link with the overuse of social media. For a time, each story contributes to a trend where newspapers and broadcasters try to outdo each other with more dramatic, preferably tragic, stories.

We’ve been here before. Remember video nasties? I remember one early eighties, 11-year-old, announcing to the class that his favourite film was ‘I spit on your grave.’ To my knowledge he did not become a serial killer. At the time, there was a full-blown moral panic as social scientists correlated watching violent films with deviant behaviour but could never show cause and effect. Despite this ‘moral guardians’ such as church leaders, educationists and career-minded politicians jumped on the bandwagon appearing at public meetings, in print and on screen, demanding action to stop young people seeing these films. As with all moral panics, it faded out as the media gaze tired of it and began to look elsewhere for new stimulation.

Before video nasties, we had football hooligans, punks, mods and rockers, all an apparent threat to western civilisation and all forgotten because they were mere mediated social constructs with no lasting substance. After the video nasties, we had heavy metal-based satanism, goths, raves and ecstasy pills. It was only when a prominent health professor reminded us that horse riding was statistically far more risky than taking ecstasy pills, that it too faded from our screens and frontpages.

Even before that we had horror and crime comics threatening the safety of families in 1950s USA and way back in the 1700s, the ‘fops’ forewarned the terminal decline of Georgian England.

All things pass.

While I don’t doubt that some aspects of heavy social media use may be bad for your health, so are many other things such as inactivity, poor diet, poverty and, notably underlying inequality. There’s real evidence for the latter and we could actually do something about that.

Countries that are less equal than others have more mental health problems than those that are more equal. Just by reducing inequality, you can reduce the level of mental health problems as well as physical health problems and crime levels. The research basis is there.

See this:


More unequal societies such as the USA, Russia, India and increasingly the UK, suffer greater problems of mental health, crime, illness, short life expectancy and poor educational attainment than more equal ones such as Denmark, Germany, France or Japan.

For a review of the book see:

Just as I was about to post the above, a related piece, also in the Guardian, popped up. It too questions the centrality of social media use and reminds us that analysis of the ‘real world’ is probably more useful in understanding why so many seem to be depressed, anxious or even suicidal. Here’s an extract:

Blaming social media for child angst? It’s only half the picture

It’s tempting to look for online causes if those you love are depressed – but in many cases the problem is real life

But the debate about social media and teenage mental health is getting uncomfortably reminiscent of the age-old argument about whether women’s magazines full of skinny models were making young girls anorexic, to which the answer is that basing an industry on half-starved young women is wrong on every level but eating disorders are infinitely more complicated than that.

Glossy magazines were only the most visible expression of a commercial culture based on making women think there’s something wrong with them. But even blaming eating disorders on that broader culture sidelines the issue of other things that may be going on in individual girls’ lives, or how both those factors might interact with any organic cause of mental illness. Girls who are completely happy with their bodies and lives don’t generally develop eating disorders overnight just by reading fashion spreads. Understanding this doesn’t remotely absolve fashion magazines from recognising their social responsibilities, both to readers and to models, and the changes some have made are also sensible. But they only get us so far.

Research does suggest that children who spend a lot of time online are unhappier than children who don’t, but it’s still unclear which way round the cause and effect are. Are social media so toxic that they drag otherwise happy children down, or do the lonely and troubled spend longer than others seeking comfort from them? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle, with unhappy kids more likely to chase a kind of gratification that will ultimately leave them feeling worse, like adults seeking solace in a bottle? If it’s the latter, then obviously social media companies would still have a moral obligation to vulnerable users. But that would be only half the picture. The other half is asking why so many kids are vulnerable in the first place.

















18 thoughts on “It’s not so much social media that are making us unhappy, it’s more, inequality

  1. Contrary February 8, 2019 / 9:28 am

    Cause and effect. Yes, this is a problem, and can result in people interpreting correlations incorrectly. Take the famous example of the correlation between heart disease and the hardness of drinking water – there is a correlation in incidence of heart disease being statistically lower with increasing hardness of water supply. So Scotland with soft water has a higher incidence of heart disease, while the south of England has lower heart disease and harder water (and a gradation down through the island). BUT, there is no causal link – it cannot be said that one causes the other. Although some local authorities add calcium carbonate to the water to make it harder. I suspect it is a whole range of factors, but if soft water is part of the reason for a greater likelihood for heart disease, then maybe the implication that it is purely Scotland’s bad greasy diet that makes heart disease more common is unfounded – maybe we just have to be much healthier to reach the lower levels of the rest of the U.K.? Let’s face it, the Yorkshire diet is famously full of saturated fats – why should their levels of heart disease less than ours?

    There is rarely just one factor causing any one effect, but finding all those factors and working out how they interact is a difficult task. I agree about social media, the MSM trying to simplify it to make out its use causes harm is irresponsible, it is far more likely the problems exist and social media use is an outlet in expressing those problems.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Alan Gordon February 8, 2019 / 4:40 pm

      Thanks. New nothing about the hard, soft water and health. Interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Legerwood February 8, 2019 / 5:35 pm

      The example we were given on the statistics course when I was at University was the correlation between the incidence of Breast Cancer and telephone ownership. Almost a perfect correlation but telephones do not cause Breast Cancer. Telephone ownership was the proxy for the Western lifestyle and in particular Western diet.
      A good example to demonstrate that correlation does not indicate cause.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Contrary February 8, 2019 / 10:34 pm

        I’d forgotten about that one about phones and breast cancer. That is a good example one of why you need to be careful with your correlations. There is another example of early correlating evidence that worked – I’ve forgotten the details right now, but maybe you know it – of discovering the cholera (?) outbreak in Victorian London (?) – the incidence of disease was plotted on a map and eventually they noticed all centred around a couple of standpipes where everyone got their water, as soon as they stopped everyone using those supplies, the disease went away.

        I like the hard water – heart disease correlation, because it is still a possible one but not the whole story. The human body is a complex thing.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Legerwood February 9, 2019 / 5:42 pm

        I knew about the cholera one. Another example might be lung cancer and smoking


  2. Contrary February 8, 2019 / 9:38 am

    Today they have a phone-in on radio Scotland on ‘should you give money to begging on the streets’ – it’s a regular theme – and again everyone makes wild assumptions and stupid solutions. If someone is at the stage of needing to beg in the street, there are far too many complexities to make assumptions like ‘they just need a work programme’. Personally I’d prefer to give money to someone on the street, for any use they wish, than give to any of the big organised charities with CEOs earning hundreds of thousands.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Jon February 8, 2019 / 10:12 am

    The all media onslaught on Social Media isn’t because it’s bad for people. Alcohol, cigarettes and drugs don’t get the same treatment. Social Media is baaaadddd because its a threat to the grip Westminster elites have over the population’s thoughts.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Alasdair Macdonald February 8, 2019 / 11:34 am

    The onslaught on social media, is, as Professor Robertson indicates, just the latest in a series of ‘moral panics’. Essentially, they are a reaction by the powerful vested interests (from Abbots and Emperors, to present day globalised finance) at what they perceive as a threat to their power, because people are getting information from other sources and are engaging in discourse, indeed, awful crime: THINKING!!

    They are seeking to get quasi legal justification for controlling the media, but cynically using the sympathy we all feel for grieving parents seeking to find out why a beloved child has committed suicide. By demanding access to such Facebook records, they will also get access to the hugely more sane discourse amongst the general population.

    Organisations like Facebook and Google can become behemoths and can be tempted to misuse data and need to be subject to a transparent regulatory regime, but let’s not fall for the urgings of cynical powerful interests to form a lynch mob.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Toni Young February 8, 2019 / 3:39 pm

    The flipside of all that is seen in my family. My older daughter is not particularly outgoing, though sociable. Through social media she met and got engaged to a wonderful San Fransiscan, by way of online sites for taking part in games of all kinds, (word-games, chess etc). She would never have met her fiance otherwise. He has visited us for eleven years, she going to San Fransisco on alternate years and staying with his family. This has opened our whole family up to influences we would never have encountered otherwise.
    Also, as a family we interact, sometimes hilariously, over the things we find online, particularly of the feline variety, as we are ruled by the household cat. Maybe we have been lucky, but social media has only added immensely to our lives.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Alan Gordon February 8, 2019 / 4:36 pm

    Not totally off topic; missed the detail of a piece, on this morning’s radio, about poverty, children in Scotland and how terrible it was. Went on to the beeb website to have a look, couldn’t see it, obscured by another dire headline, “Life expectancy rise in Scotland grinding to a halt”. This gave me two immediate thoughts. Firstly, that headline is a being predictive. Slowing down? yes, grinding to a halt? not yet, let’s wait and see. Secondly, who , why and when, decides to run with these scare stories? John, is there a psychological reason that would back up the need to have a regular but periodic exposure to scare, as with tetanus and the biology of the immune, reminding us of the threat? It does appear rythmical but then again it might be distraction from the rythmical shit storm that is Westminster.

    As you (John) have pointed on this blogg previously, on the grammatical use of quotes, “warning light”, “cause for concern” etc. were used on this beeb “news” piece along with a handy link, in bold to, how long might you live. I homed in on the life expectancy stat that compared Scot females with females in England and used 2016 as the comparative year. Now I can display some of the education gained from TuS and commenters. Ah ah, says I, pound tae a pail o turds, that even the English female expectancy fell in 2016 and that the male expectancy must be dire. Thought I would try and check out the English life expectancy figures.

    Bingo, on the beeb but after the scare vaccine to the Scots, “UK life expectancy rise, stops”. Now, that puts Scotland’s life expectancy as, still increasing but not as fast as previously. The predictive “grinding to a halt” headline would only become true if we followed the English life style and governance. I doubt we will see a headline “rUk encouraged to follow Scotland model for health and life expectancy” anytime soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Legerwood February 8, 2019 / 5:45 pm

      The story on life expectancy stalling is actually recycled from a few months ago. It also sounds from what you have said that they have again omitted the fact that it has stalled UK-wide not just Scotland.

      There seems to be more and more of these recycled stories appearing in the media both print and broadcast. It seems that if they can’t find a current SNP Bad story then they recycle one they used before in the expectation we will have forgotten that it has already been round the block.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Alan Gordon February 9, 2019 / 10:13 am

        Arse cheeks making buttons as Alasdair mentions above but states it more eloquently.


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