13 Investigates


13 Investigates: What can be done to stop social media's toxic turn?

Kids and phones - file KTNV
Posted at 4:23 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 23:00:06-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Social media was meant to connect people. But over time, it's turned toxic for many.

As tech companies come under increasing scrutiny, 13 Investigates examines how our state is tackling social media's harmful effects, and one company's goal to make a safer app.

"The reality is, is that we're not interacting in a meaningful way on these platforms. And furthermore, they're really bringing us further apart than closer together," says entrepreneur Henry Asulin.

Research going back at least a decade shows a direct link between time spent on social media and mental health problems.

"We're seeing a real increase in the amount of feelings of depression, anxiety and even just isolation and loneliness," says Las Vegas psychologist Dr. Sunshine Collins.

Add to that, eating disorders and even suicide.

So pervasive are the ill effects, Collins says she's introduced a new question for her clients.

"When I'm working with people now, the thing that I need to ask is not just, 'How's your social life?' You know, 'How often are you interacting with peers?' But really, 'How are you interacting with them?'" Collins said. "So, 'Are you still seeing them in person or are you making plans and then meeting up with intention and purpose for a specific time and activity? Or are you just relying on that contact you get on the internet, just from likes or comments on a post that you made?' Those are very different quality of social interactions."

For many people, social media began as a warm and inviting opportunity to keep in touch with out-of-state family members, or an exciting chance to make surprise connections with childhood friends.

But for many, the excitement waned as the social media experience morphed into endless advertising, divisive content and all things going viral.

"We would expect to see social media really fulfilling some of our need as people to get that social connection," Collins said. "But we're really oftentimes seeing the opposite — that there's an increase of loneliness from people who are using social media for a lot of their social interaction."

Licensed marriage and family therapist Kim Taylor says prior to social media, it was often difficult for spouses to connect. Now, it's even worse.

"The phone is such a brainless distraction," Taylor said. "And so a lot of couples will just end up on their phone at night, scrolling, clicking, doing whatever. And they're not spending time together, connecting, talking, planning, whether it's vacations or goals or whatever it might be."

Taylor says if connection is lacking in our relationships, it could have serious consequences.

"It can lead to infidelity. It can lead to divorce," Taylor said. "So it's just a vehicle for that."

So what's being done to curb all of that?

Just this month, several attorneys general — including Nevada's Aaron Ford — launched an investigation into TikTok to find out what harms the app can cause young users and what TikTok knew about those harms.

Via email, Ford told 13 Investigates

"Social media can be fun, but it can also pose many risks. These risks can be especially hazardous to young children who have not yet developed the tools to protect themselves online, or may not even realize the risks exist," Ford wrote. "My office will continue to look after children in the age of social media, and we urge parents to have conversations with their kids about sharing personal information online or associating with strangers."

"This is a bipartisan issue, and I'm proud to work with attorneys general around the country in tackling it," he continued. "Research has shown that social media can be harmful to the physical, mental and emotional well-being of children, and it's an issue that we must take seriously."

A spokesperson for TikTok provided the following statement:

We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users. We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.
TikTok spokesperson

Here are links TikTok sent which outline specific measures the company takes to protect youth, focused on product experiences designed by age:

"The way that we connect with technology today is very superficial," says the entrepreneur Asulin. He's pursuing a totally different kind of social media.

"And so right now with social media platforms, people are fixated on these superficial elements, such as how many followers a person has, how many likes they're getting on a photo, how many times they received the comment on a post," says Asulin.

Asulin's mission is to create a space where that doesn't happen.

"We are going to market with FutureWave, which is really the world's first family media platform of its type," he says.

It's a move away from influencers, which Asulin calls the epitome of superficiality.

"There are a bunch of these insignificant people that have millions of followers, quite frankly, and are being the core influencers in our loved ones' lives," Asulin said. "And the reality is, is that a lot of these people are being put on a pedestal for no purpose, no accomplishment, no reason."

He says it's a shame so many kids look to influencers as role models instead of their own family members.

"We are looking to reset that narrative," Asulin said. "We are looking to make it possible once again for our grandparents to be that core influential element in our lives as we continue to get older."

With the app expected to launch this summer, FutureWave will feature an interactive family tree so users can learn more about their roots. Users can also record video messages which can be seen by family members after one passes away.

Even President Joe Biden said enough is enough during his State of the Union address: "We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they're conducting on our children for profit."

Until leaders can do that and hopeful start-ups like Asulin's FutureWave can provide alternatives, family therapist Taylor says we've got to prioritize the actual people in our lives over the virtual.

"Understand that these companies know exactly what they're doing," Taylor said. "They find ways to get people addicted. So if you think about it that way, someone else or some other company is basically sort of controlling you — and that's not what we want in a relationship."

13 Investigates reached out to Meta, parent company of Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and other platforms. A company spokesperson provided several links for additional resources for parents.

The information Meta provided 13 Investigates shows the company has introduced features on Instagram which include nudging teens away from topics they've spent a lot of time on, the ability to mute accounts teens need a break from and the ability to hide likes. The information shows Instagram is defaulting teens to private accounts.

No word yet on how long the TikTok investigation is expected to takem but we will get those results when they come in. And, we'll let you know when FutureWave launches later this year.

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