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Browsing Facebook can leave people feeling worse afterwards, researchers at the social network company have admitted. Photo: EPA-EFE

Three simple rules could change Facebook for the better

Anson Au says there is no cause for alarm over news that sites like Facebook may affect mood or induce addiction, and offers three guidelines to regulate the provision and use of social media, and make it a positive force

Facebook’s own research scientists have admitted that using the platform, and social media in general, could negatively affect your mood. Some writers and public figures responded by calling social media a dopamine shot for millennial junkies, arguing that it should be abandoned.
The parallels with drug addiction aren’t unfounded – but social media has obvious benefits as well. While it’s not the utopian virtual world tech giants tried to sell, it isn’t a dangerous digital gateway drug either. We must introduce guidelines to govern the provision and use of social media.
First, we need guidelines to moderate its use, not renounce it outright. Alcohol in excess causes problems, yet we haven’t banned it altogether – we have simply moderated it. Likewise, we need recommendations for hours spent on social media, information campaigns on the risks of excessive use, and to establish stern internet controls on use by vulnerable populations, like minors.

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Second, we need guidelines for company accountability on content. A major problem with social media relates to the oversight of dangerous and illegal content, such as the beheading videos posted on Facebook in 2014 by Islamic State. Accountability for companies involves accounting for activities, accepting responsibility for them, and transparency of operation. Social media companies need more responsive oversight mechanisms for posted content, catching illegal material without publishing it.

Their famously opaque data collection and manipulation methodologies must be publicised, and they must be liable to penalties if guidelines are broken or ignored.

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Third, we need guidelines for developing technology in the first place. There is a lack of democracy on this front. Key leaders in technology companies, such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, can influence social affairs and advise political leaders. The reverse must happen as well.

Mapping the direction of tech development will require greater collaboration with policymakers, health care workers, independent researchers, and other sectors.

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That would improve corporate accountability, help forecast problems like the ones we’re now seeing, and broaden technological applications to meet existing needs. In health care, for instance, suicide hotlines use social media, but must make greater inroads into detecting potential crises.

When books were invented, soothsayers lamented the loss of social networking, as people chose solitude instead of each other. That hasn’t happened. Change is constant, as are its critics.

What we need today with social media is not to stop change, but to participate in collaborative efforts to leverage it for the greatest good.

Anson Au is a visiting researcher in the Department of Sociology at the Hong Kong Baptist University

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Set limits on social media