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Social media raises concerns about people’s well-being

Short videos can have serious effects on people’s mental state in the long run (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

by Andrew Dunn

Since Ginette Paola Pedrasa (Pao_la_Periodista) first downloaded TikTok in 2019, she has become one of the social media site’s biggest supporters and one of its more popular users. Her short videos about the 2021 mass protests in Colombia are quickly gaining popularity in the global TikTok community.

Pedrasa installed TikTok because her daughter convinced her how fun the app was. Pedraza, 37, a journalism researcher who is originally from Colombia but now lives in Spain, wanted to better understand what content was so appealing to her child.

News niche

As the world lives in lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, the two are using the app to post short videos about how they are adjusting to life indoors. Later, as demonstrations broke out in Colombia against tax increases, changes to public health and other issues, Pedraza found a niche: breaking news from Spain about public discontent in his homeland.

“I found TikTok to be a valuable tool that can be used to transform society — beyond dance, the latest trends and challenges,” she says.

When Pedraza recorded her first video, she had 100 followers. Today, almost 25,000 people receive her daily updates.

Pedrasa shares his impressions as part of new EU-funded research into TikTok’s impact on Generation Z (Gen Z): the ‘zoomers’ who grew up surrounded by social media.

The initiative is led by Dr. Paolo Gerbaudo, a specialist in the sociology of culture at the Scuola Normale Superiore, an Italian educational center founded by Napoleon in 1810. The project, called “TikTok and Generation Z,” or TKTKGEN, begins in January 2022. and is running until the end of this year.

By analyzing social media sites and focus groups in Europe and China, where TikTok originated, Gerbaudo wants to better understand these second-generation video-sharing platforms. It focuses on why and how young people use TikTok.

Positive emotions

The reason they are abandoning traditional social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter in favor of TikTok is its more positive content, according to Gerbaudo.

Unlike Twitter’s frenzied retweeting, TikTok has been presented as a force for good from the start — its unique algorithm is able to make accurate predictions about the type of content a user might find entertaining.

Gerbaudo thinks this approach probably resonates more with Gen Z, who he says is looking for more uplifting material.

“The generation grew up in a succession of crises — from climate change to Covid-19 — that inevitably shaped their behavior and beliefs,” he says. “TikTok offers a lens through which to understand youth culture, and it seems that this generation has a really different view of the world, less confrontational.”

But could an excess of good vibes and motivational messages also create its own problems for young people?

Gerbaudo seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the impact on mental health that the platform’s “toxic positivism” — a constant pressure to be happy and share only the positive aspects of life — exerts.

There are also concerns about screen addiction. While little is currently known about how TikTok affects users, experts warn that the platform’s unique algorithm and 15- to 30-second videos could have serious effects on people’s mental state in the long term.

The effects on the screen

Professor Anders Grontved from the University of Southern Denmark breaks new ground with one of the most in-depth studies to date on the impact of increased screen time.

He is coordinating a six-year project investigating the effects of digital screen use on mental health, sleep and physical activity. Called SCREENS, the EU-funded project ended in January this year.

Fifteen years ago, researchers relied on questionnaires to determine people’s screen time, typically asking how much time they spent in front of a personal computer or TV. Today, however, a new approach is needed.

The SCREENS team is developing an app that tracks smartphone usage and measures people’s movements, sleep quality and stress levels. While screen time is clearly increasing, the health effects are not as easily quantified, according to Grontvedt.

Still, by combining data collected from nearly 400 people in Denmark with evidence from public health and behavioral science, the team is really shedding light on how screen time affects society, particularly children.

Rest

The results of the project show that when screen time is reduced to one hour per day, physical activity among children and young people increases significantly.

During the week, physical activity increases by an average of 45 minutes per day, and on weekends by 73 minutes.

“We really didn’t expect such a big effect,” Grontvedt says. “We need to find better opportunities for young people to spend time with each other instead of in front of their screens.”

Based on these findings, he is now working with local schools to increase the provision of after-school activities.

For adults, the positive impact of physical activity is not as obvious, as they usually substitute one sedentary activity for another. In adults, however, better sleep and an improvement in general mood and well-being are reported.

In short, the project confirms some of the perceived challenges posed by the increased use of social media and helps focus attention on the problem.

“These technologies have advantages, but we need to better understand their immediate and long-term consequences,” Grontvedt says.

Family rules

According to him, this may signal a need for more control over the use of social media, especially in the family.

A practical step he suggests parents take is to set rules limiting screen time at home — and not just for kids. Data from the project shows that the more time parents spend in front of a screen, the longer their children will spend it too.

What’s more, the more addicted parents are to their smartphones, the worse their children’s mental health. When families set limits, people are more active and generally happier.

Grontvedt tried this in her own home with her three children and welcomed the results.

“It’s been a really good experience for my family and it’s allowed us to spend a lot more time together at home,” he says. “I would advise people to try it.”

The research in this article was funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and the Marie Sklodowska-Curie (MRC) Action of the EU. It was first published inHorizonthe EU research and innovation journal.

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