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Stop the spread of mass hysteria through social media platforms

HHow are angry crowds storming the Capitol and Facebook driving our girls to bulimia? Both were propelled by mass hysteria, a powerful force that drives human behavior.

As a psychiatrist and neuroscientist, I have studied how social contagion and the use of technology have affected the brains and behavior of humans since the late 1970s. So I was concerned when whistleblower Francis Haugen exposed Facebook’s awareness of the consequences of its algorithms on users’ mental health. I immediately feared for my own daughter, as I’m sure many others too.

I first studied the health effects of social contagion as a psychiatric resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. I saw a report on 34 children from a school in Norwood, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, rushed to hospital after the sudden onset of dizziness, hyperventilation, headaches and nausea. The study I conducted with my mentor, Armand M. Nicholi, revealed that this mysterious disease was due to mass hysteria, a bodily epidemic with psychological rather than physical causes. Psychosomatic symptoms quickly spread among the children: Watching their classmates fall ill at a school assembly triggered a spread of symptoms among the 224 students honoring the sixth graders who were finishing their studies.


My subsequent studies of epidemics of psychosomatic illnesses show that susceptibility to symptoms is driven by community anxieties, social status, and sensory cues, especially visual ones.


Reports of collective hysteria, from nun bite epidemics episodes of fits and convulsions date back to the Middle Ages. Although social contagion sometimes spreads positive emotions and behaviors, such as during sporting events, the results of mass hysteria are generally negative. Our ubiquitous displays and devices have accelerated the rate at which these events occur. Think of the mass steroid hysteria.

The current social media business model that fuels controversy, fear, negativity, division and misinformation drives sales and ad revenue. But it also worsens psychological problems like solitude, anxiety, and depression, as well as eating disorders, substance abuse, and suicide. When a teenager seeks help online because she feels overweight, she is bombarded with ads and images that make her feel worse about herself. Of course, it is natural for adolescents to suffer from doubt and peer pressure; however, body image posts powered by Facebook and Instagram have been directly linked to the risk of eating disorders.

Technology is designed to make us addicted. As social beings, we aspire to connect with others, and our brains have evolved to seek novelty. Social media platforms are great for finding fresh content with their never-ending offerings of flashy and exciting images and information. Scrolling through social media often triggers beneficial dopamine neural circuits, activating the same neurotransmitters that lead to all addictive behavior, whether it’s drugs, gambling, food, or fear of missing out.

Directing people with mental health issues to harmful media exposure has been even more malicious during the Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, the health issues associated with the pandemic have been at the center of the concerns of healthcare workers and hospitals, but we also need to tackle the mental health costs of the pandemic. Children who exercise regularly and spend less time on screens experience fewer mood and behavioral symptoms, but children at greater risk of pandemic stressors are spending more time with screens and social media, and less time being physically active.

Misuse of social networks may contribute to worsening attention deficit disorder symptoms, sleep disturbances, weight gain, memory impairment, social isolation, and even lower emotional and social intelligence . Fortunately, some of these harmful mental effects can be reversible. Several colleagues from UCLA and I studied 54 tweens who spent five days in a night camp in the wild where they could not use televisions, computers or cell phones. We found that intensifying face-to-face interactions without the use of on-screen media resulted in significant improvements in participants’ ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues from facial expressions and scenes recorded on video, compared to 54 pre-teens. pairings who have maintained their usual social media practices.

The desire of humans to connect, play and explore online can have positive results. Some apps and video games may improve multitasking skills, memory, fluid intelligence, and other cognitive abilities. A simple online search can exercise brain cells. Functional MRIs show limited brain neural activity when volunteers with no internet experience first search online, compared to internet savvy people who show more than twice the brain activation when searched online. After just a week of online research, naive internet volunteers showed surges of neuronal activity in areas of the brain controlling thought and memory during their research. Surgeons playing action video games for more than three hours a week make fewer surgical errors, respond faster, and perform better in surgical skills than those who don’t play video games.

Almost four years ago Facebook recognized that passive consumption of information on social media could make people feel worse. His solution? Facebook has advised people to increase their time on the platform, engage and interact with other users. This short-sighted strategy clearly did not work.

Strategic action is needed. Social media companies like Facebook, or Meta as its parent company is now known, must establish behavioral health divisions that strategically lead vulnerable users to real help instead of leading them into a burrow of loneliness, isolation and despair. They should stop running weight loss ads about pre-teens with anorexia and instead invite them to join peer support groups for information and support. Internet users deprived of sleep could be directed to cognitive behavioral therapy programs as effective for insomnia as many drugs, and dissatisfied users may be referred to mindfulness-based interventions that reduce symptoms of depression. More vigilant parental supervision that encourages offline social interactions and increased recreational activities can help boost mental and physical health, but it is not parents’ fault that these media conglomerates trap their children in online use. addictive line.

I believe the public is desperate for a solution to reverse the trend of harmful online practices and the spread of mass hysteria on the internet. Insisting that elected officials pass laws that curb social media businesses and protect children seems like the best path to real change. The Covid-19 pandemic is bad enough without the addition of this little-known wave of mass hysteria.

Gary W. Small is a psychiatrist, president of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center, chief medical officer of behavioral health for Hackensack Meridian Health, and co-author with Gigi Vorgan of “The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young” ” (Hachette Books).

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