Two years ago I took a drastic decision to deactivate my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I chose to prioritise my mental health over the weight of being an ardent user of Mark Zuckerberg’s social media platforms.
To be fair, the decision to quit was by no means an easy one to make; it meant losing touch with old schoolmates and past colleagues. But the recent revelation by Facebook Whistleblower, Frances Haugen, on 60 Minutes has proven to vindicate my decision.
Ms Haugen in an interview brings to light an internal Facebook study that shows that Instagram harms teenage girls, 13.5 percent of girls said the app made thoughts of suicide worse. The research also indicates that girls end up in a cycle where they hate their bodies more and more because of the comparisons they see on the app.
Instagram and Facebook’s algorithms have been designed in such a way that as young people continue to consume content on these platforms, they get more depressed, which drives them back to the platforms earning Zuckerberg more money.
I reckon that Ms Haugen’s revelations of Facebook’s promotion of misinformation, hate speech and depression would have largely gone unnoticed for many unsuspecting Ugandans if it hadn’t been for Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp outage on Monday.
According to Internet World Stats, as of December 2020, Uganda had 3,328,000 Facebook subscribers. The increasing number of subscribers should be juxtaposed with the increasing suicide rates among teenagers in the country.
The outage of Facebook, therefore, presents a perfect opportunity to assess the impact of social media on young Ugandans and what can be done to mitigate its devastating effects.
Scientific studies have shown that usage of social media increases dopamine – the chemical in the brain that makes us happy. This same chemical is stirred up in gambling, smoking, and drinking alcohol; which are heavily regulated.
The usage of social media, therefore, has the same effects as substance abuse yet little has been done to regulate the same especially for teenagers. The Uganda Communications Commission is vested with the mandate to regulate communications on all platforms in Uganda.
The Commission should use its mandate to protect our children from the numbing effects of social media; for instance, the Commission can impose age restrictions in accessing these platforms. Parents should also do their part by shielding their children from these platforms until they are old enough.
Ronald Okiring, Lawyer