"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," said Napster founder and Facebook investor Sean Parker in 2017, talking about the social media industrial complex he helped to create.
In recent weeks, the perils of social media obsession and online addiction have once again been thrust into the spotlight thanks to the one-two punch of a new Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, and comments made by Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, at a recent virtual summit in which she voiced concern for society's "obsession" with life lived online.
Speaking at Fortune magazine's Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit, which was held online this month, Meghan, 39, said: "I have a lot of concerns for people who have become obsessed with it [social media], and it is so much a part of our daily culture for so many people that it's an addiction.
“There are very few things in this world where you call the person who’s engaging with it a user. People who are addicted to drugs are called users and people who are on social media are called users, and there is something algorithmically that is in there that is creating this obsession, and I think it’s very unhealthy for a lot of people.”
Although Meghan's comments made headlines, concerns about the dangers of becoming addicted to social media are not new. "It's exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology," Parker said at an Axios event in Philadelphia in 2017. "The inventors, creators – it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people – understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
‘Social media is being used for comparison, not connection’
“While social media in itself is not a recognised addiction, technology and gaming addiction treatment centres exist,” says Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia.
"I believe that parents should not allow their children to excessively engage on social media until they are in their late teens, and definitely not by the age of 13." It is the age the three main social media behemoths – Twitter, Instagram and Facebook – say users must be in order to create an account on their platforms.
Afridi’s advice mirrors that given by the World Health Organisation, which says children under five should get no more than an hour of device screen time a day.
“Social media may have had the intention of connecting people, but it is not being used as such,” adds Afridi. “It is used for comparison more than connection, and the downside is way higher than the upside if it is not used consciously. And to be frank, most people are not using it consciously or in a balanced way because millions of dollars of research and development is spent on making sure we are increasingly more engaged, that is, addicted."
Nancy Najm, co-founder and head of partnerships at Dubai's Cloudhoods, who is a mother to two children aged 7 and 3, adds: "Children and adults can easily fall into the trap of believing everything they are seeing, which could damage their self-esteem and sense of inner satisfaction and the ability to enjoy what they have. "This addiction can turn to depression, especially in teenage years."
‘What do tech executives know that we don’t?’
The call to limit screentime, and the dangers of children being exposed to too much technology is not a new concept. In 2011, journalist, Nick Bilton, writing in The New York Times, revealed a telling exchange with Apple chief executive Steve Jobs, the man who helped invent the iPhone and iPad: "'So, your kids must love the iPad?' I asked Mr Jobs… The company's first tablet was just hitting the shelves. 'They haven't used it,' he told me. 'We limit how much technology our kids use at home.'" Let that sink in for a second.
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also publicly shared his rules for technology when it came to his three children: no phones until they turned 14, no devices at the dinner table, and no phones allowed in the bedroom. "You're always looking at how it can be used in a great way – homework and staying in touch with friends – and also where it has gotten to excess," Gates told the UK's The Mirror in April 2017.
And it is the response of these entrepreneurs to the technology they helped to create that led authors Joe Clement and Matt Miles in their 2017 book, Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber, to ask: "What is it these wealthy tech executives know about their own products that their consumers don't?"
‘My kids can stay hypnotised for an entire day’
"In terms of the benefits of social media, it allows for connections with friends and family around the globe, since many of us are away from our families," says Najm. "We specifically felt its importance during the Covid-19 restrictions. It was the only way to connect with friends and share happy moments.
"In normal times, it also gives them access to the whole globe at the touch of a button, whether for entertainment, education or leisure. We've travelled and visited a museum via a 360 tour all whilst sitting in our living room, " Najm says. Though, she adds: "The disadvantage is the sheer addiction. My kids can easily stay hypnotised for an entire day, which is unhealthy on all levels. They will become lazy, and uninterested in outdoor activities that require physical effort. They will therefore not enjoy the present moment. It can also affect their mental health, too, if they are repeatedly looking at other people's lives and comparing theirs to those little squares, which don't reflect reality."
It's a sentiment that US psychologist Jean M Twenge, writing in The Atlantic in September 2017, delivered in a stark warning. "The more time teens spend looking at screens, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression," she wrote. "Eighth-graders who are heavy users of social media increase their risk of depression by 27 per cent, while those who play sports, go to religious services, or even do homework more than the average teen cut their risk significantly.
“Teens who spend three hours a day or more on electronic devices are 35 per cent more likely to have a risk factor for suicide, such as making a suicide plan.”
Meghan: My 'personal choice’ to delete accounts
Before marrying Prince Harry in 2018, Meghan was very active online, with personal Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. The former Suits actress also had her own wellness and lifestyle blog called The Tig.
Having closed all these down to focus on the Sussex Royal Instagram account she shares with her husband, and which boasts 10.6 million followers, Meghan told Fortune of her new pared-back approach to social media. "I have made a personal choice to not have any accounts so I don't know what's out there, and in many ways that's helpful for me.
"I don’t even think people have started to scratch the surface of what it [social media] is doing to us.”
Chamath Palihapitiya, who was vice-president for user growth at Facebook until he left the company in 2011, expressed his "tremendous guilt" concerning his work on "tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works". He said at Stanford Business School in 2018: "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth."
‘This generation shows itself, but doesn’t know itself’
"Social media affects identity formation," says Afridi, bluntly. "One of the main tasks of adolescents is to explore their identity and develop a sense of self. Self-identity gives children a sense of consistency and stability over time. Wherein with previous generations adolescents would go out, make mistakes and explore their identities, now adolescents are less likely to do any of this.
“They sit in their rooms, and their identities are being projected on to them via social media. Who you are, what you should wear, what you should buy, who you should emulate – is all linked to how many likes they get. This is a generation far more invested in showing themselves than knowing themselves.”
Navigating parenting in our social media-obsessed world, Najm says she relies on open communication with her children, to educate them on the dangers of becoming addicted to social media.
"I believe kids understand much more than we think," she says. "Being open, honest and telling them what is good and what isn't in as straightforward a manner as we can will let them know what is wrong and not. As parents we are therefore not forcing them, and they learn to make decisions for themselves."