Is the Algorithm is deciding our mental health?

There’s no question that I spend too much time online. I’ve talked before about how the constant flow of information seems to feed my brain’s urgency to avoid stillness, and noticing when that urge to quiet my internal dialogue with a bunch of other people’s internal dialogues has been something I’ve been working on.

At this point, I’ve got a decent handle on why I as the social media user get drawn into the scroll, but there’s another side of the equation; the what that pulls me in.

What feels so fascinating about our feeds is they seem to represent such a fundamental chicken and egg phenomenon: are they full of what we are most interested in, or are our interests being actively shaped by what we’re constantly fed? Do our feeds reflect who we are? Or are they reflecting who our feeds have made us? 

If my phone washed up on the shore and someone wanted to understand who this lady still lost at sea was, they’d be able to glean some pretty solid data when they opened Instagram. I’m very clearly an elder millennial trying to gentle(ish) parent who fantasizes about getting stuck in a remote cabin with a pile of books. They’d see that I like pretty things, humor that borders on the inappropriate, neuroscience, daydreaming about fancy meals, and the edges of woo-woo.

But would I like those things as much if I wasn’t constantly being reminded of my affinity for them? If I wasn’t being fed more of the same, with only the slightest variations in presentation? The fact is, as someone who has had social media for all of my adult life, it’s not something I’ll ever be able to separate.

In some ways, opening up my social media apps can feel like landing in a giant library, a place teaming with energy and information and opportunity for discovery. But in reality, social media is like walking into that library and being shoved down certain aisles. Here’s what we have for you. Pay no attention to the ten other floors. 

I’ve been wondering about how this algorithmic life starts to shape our mental health. I’m not talking so much about things like how virtual connections stand in for in-person connections and the many other dimensions that do impact on our mental health. I’m thinking more about how what’s in our feeds – and the very narrowness of that – constructs our sense of our minds, of what’s important and what we attend to.

As you might suspect – or see clearly if you are connected to me online – I’m an avid follower of mental health content. That might seem fairly niche already, but when I look at the particular mental health content I’m consuming, I start to see that it could all be sorted into a series of buckets, and each of these buckets has a particular philosophy and perspective.

Our partners are triggering our core wounds! 

It’s time to reject hustle culture and slow down!

The mental load is suffocating women and killing relationships!

Things will never stay as hard as they seem right now!

We must be sensitive to the feelings of our kids! 

Our brains are fried and we won’t solve it with a PTO day!

We desperately need self-compassion and self-trust!

The nervous system is vital! 

Women are people!

I’m not intending to make light of a single one of these ideas. I endorse them fully, which is exactly why I see them reinforced again and again in an endless stream of little squares. I’ll see them represented in different formats and from different vantage points – from video skits to static quotes to cartoon drawings. From a learning theory angle, I find it fascinating to see all the different ways people come up with to say, essentially, the same thing. But when I take a step back, I have to notice how constrained my intake of ideas really is. 

We like to blame the Algorithm for this constraint, and it absolutely has its share of responsibility. But at the end of the day, the Algorithm is largely responsive, being shaped by our own engagement with content that supports or refutes our own world views. We reflexively “like” the notions we feel familiar with, building the Algorithm’s confidence in giving us more of the same. 

Kyle Chayka, a New Yorker writer and author of a new book called Filterworld, names that we as users can demonstrate very little tolerance for things that we find overly surprising or challenging. Most of us aren’t going to turn to the comment section and spew vitriol if we don’t agree, but we spend very little time actually engaging with content that doesn’t support a belief that we already hold, which of course means that we see that content less and less.

Social commentators have certainly talked about how this lower tolerance for difference — the literal echo chambers that we seem to live within lately – is playing out in our world. They attribute everything from our political divisiveness to an inability to find workable social solutions to increased violence to this influence. I can see this, and I imagine you can too.

But what worries me most personally is not as much how it plays out on the world stage as how I see it playing out on the micro stages of our own minds and our own homes. As a therapist, I see evidence of this in how the mental health trends circulating social media influence the conversations that clients bring to the office.

To use one of the most discussed examples out there, I spent the last couple of years having more conversations about ADHD and neurodivergence than I’d had in all my previous years combined, fueled of course in large part by the avalanche of social media content. This isn’t good, nor bad. I notice even in typing that last sentence that I feel nervous that statement will be perceived as being anti-neurodivergent-affirming, as we’ve entered an era where the default assumption is that we absolutely should be talking about this. We spent so long not doing so, and this left so many people with a lack of understanding of their own brain functioning.

And talking about one thing means we’re not talking about another. Again, that may not be good, nor bad. Let’s consider it morally neutral for a moment. If we can, we might then consider what’s been missed amongst the swirl of the viral ADHD TikToks – both other aspects of our mental health and well-being and the nuance that this diagnostic category really deserves.

I see a similar phenomenon play out in the realm of distressing relationships between adult children and their parents, an area that I have a heart for. So many adult children have found validation and solace in the social media content on these painful dynamics, but the vast majority of the content out there seems to me to short-change the complexity. A quick tour around the internet would suggest that the answers are pretty simple – You’re an adult now. Cut off contact and don’t look back. You can heal yourself (with this $199 course). But truly, is there anything more complex than the relationship between parent and child?

We need more nuance in these conversations, certainly, but we also need more diversity of perspectives. What happens, though, when we like and like and like and watch and watch and watch the same ideas is that we keep going down the same aisles. We forget that there are ten other floors.

Here’s the other thing that happens when we consume loads of relatively redundant mental health content online: our brains believe that in taking it in, we are doing something. But as those of us know who follow 46 accounts that sound off about the importance of self-compassion and rest but still find ourselves beating ourselves up for every mistake as we down our fourth coffee for the day, there is a big gap between taking in information and integrating it. 

There is certainly something to be said for the slow drip theory; sometimes we need to hear the same ideas many, many times and in slightly varied ways before we are ready to take that information to the next level. But I personally suspect that the constant algorithmic barrage of information might actually be making integration less likely.

When we’re scrolling and come upon something that we find actually interesting, something that we believe or want to believe and that we recognize could have some value for us in our mental health, but we’re in the dopamine-fueled scroll spiral and so we like it or save it but then move on by, there’s no opportunity for the kind of processing that needs to happen to make real use of that information. The post may have lit up something inside of us, but we let that light fade out too quickly when our attention is pulled right along.

It costs cognitive and emotional resources to really process what we’re seeing, to let it sink in beyond a quick brain zap. Even if we truly want to let it make an impact, we’re fighting against our brain’s dopamine craving for more over deeper. And so, despite our best intentions or even what we think to be true about ourselves, we are more inclined toward the things that ping our pre-existing belief structures and don’t require a lot of those mental and emotional resources. It’s basic conservation of energy.

On the content creator side, these realities mean that the people producing all these information are rewarded for making it similar to all the other information we’ve already engaged with and liked. Even all the “hot takes” and “so this is an unpopular opinion” pieces are very rarely truly different. As a creator myself, I can certainly attest to how the algorithm punishes anything that’s too far off course. And as creators we fall into the same traps of consuming and regurgitating the same repetitive ideas.

If this was a social media post, it might start with slide that reads like, “You need to know these ten ways your mental health is getting CRUSHED by the algorithm,” or something that conformed to the well-worn structures of social medial like lists and click-baity scare tactics. It’s one of the many reasons that I value venues for longer-form writing like what you’re reading.

So this isn’t that, but before I wrap, I do want to share a few thoughts on how we might be more thoughtful about social media’s influence on how we think about mental health topics. Here are a few (not ten):

  1. We can reflect on our own content buckets – the beliefs or messages that most of our feed’s content espouses – so that we start to notice more clearly what those are and the limitations thereof.

  2. We can purge our feed. I know I’ve started following accounts after enjoying one or two posts but over time realized that they offer nothing distinctive of value for me. They’re mostly just regurgitating the trending mental health topics. In my opinion, less is more when it comes to content.

  3. We can consider the backgrounds and worldviews of the mental health creators we are following and notice what is or is not represented. Are we following creators of color or people from different generations or is this the sixteenth early millennial white therapist sitting in her car drinking a latte that we’ve seen in our feed today?

  4. When we land on something that makes us think even a tiny bit differently, or that piques our interest for a reason we’ve yet to understand, we can pause and reflect in real time and maybe even make a note somewhere that we want to engage with this idea more later.

  5. We can trade social media sound-bites for more longer-form content, like Substacks or even those things we used to look at… I think they were called books? Even better, we can have real-life conversations over tea or a walk or in a therapist’s office about the ideas that are moving us and let them sink more deeply into our own experience.

You might notice I didn’t list stepping away from social media as a strategy, though of course that’s always an option, and not a bad one. But I do still believe in social media’s power to be a library for us and connect us with people and views that we might not ever otherwise experience. To do so, however, we have to be much more intentional users. We have to venture out of the aisles that we’ve been led down and realize there are so many more to explore. And then we have to find a cozy corner to open our books and actually get to work.

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