Trapped in social media: Beating the algorithms

Written by: Edwina Dunn | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

There is a real fear about the negative impact that social media is having on a generation of young people. Edwina Dunn looks at recent research and one simple yet effective solution

Scare stories about the impact of social media on young people are widespread in the news. Almost every week there are headlines linking social media to depression, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders and bullying.

The fear is real – teachers and parents frequently tell me how they worry about the stress social media puts on teens, especially girls.

Girls themselves have expressed concern about how the digital world might be affecting their wellbeing. In a poll by Girlguiding (Marsh, 2017), 35 per cent of girls aged 11 to 21 said their biggest concern online was comparing themselves to others, and 45 per cent felt pressure to check their phones as soon as they wake up and before they go to sleep.

The problem is intensifying and the stakes appear to be getting higher. Jesy Nelson’s heart-breaking BBC film about trolling and suicide showed just how toxic social media can be, and prompted many to ask how guidance can be taught in schools (BBC, 2019). This is a question I have been looking at for over a year with The Female Lead, an educational charity that I founded in 2014.

We started by examining current guidelines for young people’s social media health and found that they focus mainly on limiting time online. For such a complex issue this seems like a rather simplistic solution. Social media is a huge presence in the lives of teens – can we really expect them to just switch it off? Might there be a way to make social media a constructive force?

Through my work at Starcount, where we analyse big data sets, we were able to evaluate hundreds of thousands of social media accounts and found a strong link between girls who follow diverse female role models and have a more positive self-image.

We also found that 68 per cent of teenage girls were limiting their social media interests to beauty, fashion and reality television. A dispiriting and narrow frame of interest, especially in contrast to boys who were following varied passions ranging from sport and technology, to politics and business.

Alongside the data analysis, we started a year-long qualitative study conducted by Cambridge University psychologist Dr Terri Apter, who went into five schools across the UK and explored whether simply altering who teen girls follow can have a positive impact on their mental health and aspirations.

First Dr Apter interviewed girls aged 14 to 17 about their goals, hobbies, values and social media use. In these interviews the girls spoke about the need to keep themselves “safe” from grooming and abuse. They spoke about managing envy and dissatisfaction when faced with unrealistic ideals, and how draining they found this mental work.

We also found that girls mostly did not admire the people they followed on social media. In some cases they engaged in what they called “cringe binge”, where they follow people that they do not like at all.

After the first interviews, each girl was provided with a tailored list of four high-achieving women to follow, linked to their areas of interest. The list included famous women like Michelle Obama, Jamela Jamil, and Greta Thunberg, but also women who are not well known – PhD scientists, engineers, designers, photographers and film-makers.

Six months later there was a second interview where the girls spoke about how they experienced the intervention. The results were amazing.

Almost all the girls reported that their outlooks had changed. They were now following people they admired. They felt positive about their social media feeds. One girl said: “My social media use was actually quite toxic so I think it’s shown me that my usage was harmful to myself.”

Apart from just feeling better there were practical benefits too. The girls had learned about new careers and opportunities. They discovered that, by following certain people, they could actually receive guidance and vision.

For me, the most satisfying result was that by simply following four new women with different interests, the girls’ entire feeds changed. The algorithms altered and the platforms started suggesting different people to follow. Instead of being stuck in a bubble, seeing the same type of people over and over, our suggestions disrupted the feed. And the effect of this disruption was far-reaching.

One girl told us: “It taught me there are other sides to social media. If you break the poisonous cycle it can make a big difference. I broke the vicious cycle and constant drivel ... and created another cycle of positivity. I feel healthier in my mind.”

We launched the full results of the study in October (Apter, 2019) and called the campaign Disrupting The Feed. To accompany the research we created a list of inspiring women to follow, in a range of subject categories, for anyone to access on our website.

The final part of the campaign is our Social Media Pledge, based on the research, giving four simple guidelines for healthier social media use.

We have also launched The Female Lead Societies in schools. This is an extra-curricular, student-led programme offering guidance on leadership, confidence, career options and stories of female achievement. More than 100 schools are currently taking part and our research findings are now part of the package, starting with the lists of diverse women to follow being shared throughout the network, so that the groups can spread the word within their communities.

We now have proof that there is a way to make social media healthier for girls. It is an inexpensive and simple intervention, one that could easily be to rolled out in schools.

The response to the campaign has been very positive. Aside from introducing girls to diverse female role models, Disrupting The Feed also encourages an active and mindful attitude to social media. I hope girls will take this approach into all areas of their lives. Rather than passively consuming content suggested by an algorithm and unthinkingly scrolling through pictures that engender feelings of unhappiness, they can take action and change their lives for the better.

  • Edwina Dunn OBE is founder of The Female Lead and director of Starcount.

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