We need to talk about social media
A view from Callum McCahon

We need to talk about social media

Social has a troubled relationship with mental well-being but there are steps it can make to combat this.

Social media is shifting. 

We’ve got new platforms such as Tik Tok rapidly gaining ground, looking like they’re here to stay. Established players such as Instagram are rethinking features that previously defined their platforms.

And users are shifting their attention towards smaller spaces for people with shared interests.

One thing remains constant: the troubled relationship between social media and mental well-being.

Over the past decade, social platforms have – perhaps unwittingly – fostered an environment filled with vanity metrics and mindless scrolling, and it clearly isn’t healthy. There’s also undeniably a dark side to social, populated by trolls and negativity that is a drain on users’ well-being – something that is, rightfully, being spotlighted more now than ever. 

It’s important that, as we move into a new era of social, we take stock. What have we learned, what should we bring with us and what should we leave behind to create a healthier environment for users?

Meaningful metrics

The "old guard" – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter – has made a fair amount of progress in addressing the issues. Instagram has gone furthest in responding to the challenge in a meaningful way: hiding the "like" count, making follower counts less prominent and rolling out the "close friends" feature. 

This isn’t a new school of thought. Way back in 2012, artist Ben Grosser created the Demetricator tool as part of a social experiment: social media without the numbers. Thirty friends liking your post becomes just a simple "people" liking your post. 

Only when you remove the numbers do you realise how much we evaluate ourselves based on meaningless indicators such as "likes", shares and views. The sooner we move on, the better – and that goes for brands as well. 

Time well spent

Social platforms are the procrastinator’s weapon of choice, but mindless scrolling isn’t good for anyone. We’re often consuming far more than our brains can make sense of. 

So, when Instagram swapped the infinite scroll for the "all caught up" reminder, it was a step in the right direction. This was a significant move towards making time online more mindful. It’s a stark reminder of our compulsiveness to consume everything on our feeds and there is no better definition of "mindless" than scrolling through posts you’ve already seen. The direction of travel for social needs to be towards making time spent on it much more purposeful. 

Safe spaces

Privacy remains high on the agenda for users. They are clearly enjoying the sanctuary of smaller spaces built around shared interests, such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups – places where we can share whatever we want without subjecting ourselves to the judging eyes of everyone you’ve ever known. These closed groups are not problem-free, but they do alleviate the pressures of public posting. 

Social platforms that succeed over the next five years will be the ones that focus on creating safe places for people with shared interests. Facebook knows this and that’s why it is rebuilding the platform to centre around groups. It will be fascinating to see how new platforms such as TikTok approach this – leaning in will be crucial to their long-term success. 

Earning attention

It’s one thing for the platforms to take the lead, but brands also have a responsibility to address these issues. 

We, as an industry, need to step up and take a more purposeful approach to the work we’re putting out into the world. In our recent Silence, Brand white paper, we revealed that 80% of consumers want campaigns to be "watchable", "shareable" and "enjoyable". Social content is no longer about hacking attention; you have to earn it, making sure any time your audience spends with you is time well-spent. 

Let’s use this moment of change to hold ourselves to higher standards, ensuring that everything we make is mindful, not mindless. 

Callum McCahon is strategy director at Born Social