Though the perils and promises of social media have been a point discussion for years, for Dr. Brian Primack, a single event brought the catch-22 of these interactive online platforms into sharp focus.
“The Pittsburgh [Tree of Life] shooting was in my community in my neighborhood,” said Primack in a recent phone interview. “I started to notice how social media was such a part of fomenting some of the anger and hatred that led to the event, but also, social media turned out to capitalize a lot of the warmth and generosity and healing after the event.”
Primack’s social science, self-help book, “You Are What You Click,” comes out Sept. 14 from Chronicle Prism. The book covers social media mindfulness, how to authentically employ emojis, and how to craft a “satisfying and nourishing tech diet,” said Primack, who received a master’s degree in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, practiced family medicine for more than a decade, and now serves as the Dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas. There’s also a personality quiz in the book to determine the best ways to avoid individual pitfalls of social media.
The Globe caught up with Primack, who lives in Fayetteville, Ark., about the book, the intersection of COVID-19 and social media, and the future of these thorny online platforms.
Q. What inspired you to explore the effects of social media?
A. It’s not a surprise that social media and related technologies are extremely common and powerful in our society today. As we’ve done more research on them, we understand that they represent the sharpest double-edged sword of our era, in the sense that they can catalyze connection and warmth and generosity, but they can also breed feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation. So we really need to chart a way forward in terms of how we balance the challenges of technology with the benefits.
Q. What are the lessons about social media you’re hoping to share?
A. The idea was to create a “food pyramid,” and there are three levels to the pyramid. The bottom level is how to cull your initial experiences. That is the “be selective” portion. It’s to select specific platforms consciously. The middle layer is “be positive.” [My research team and I have] done research that suggests that the negative experiences are much more powerful — it’s much more likely to influence things like depression and anxiety. Positive experiences do influence it, but not to the same degree. This is why we have to seek positivity with a vengeance in our social media worlds. The pinnacle of the pyramid is to “be creative.” That’s only possible to do once you’ve laid the foundation of how you’re being selective, and then how you’re being positive in those worlds, and so then that creativity makes it your own.
Q. What do you think is the core relationship between mental health and social media?
A. The way we are using social media in today’s society, a lot of it is the Wild West. It’s maybe a little bit unhinged. I think a lot of people are ending up with more disappointment and isolation in their social media use. They’re feeling bad about themselves because they compare themselves to very, very curated images of perfection. They sometimes miss out on in-person relationships. I think that this unbridled use has led to social media being associated with a lot of negative things, but I don’t think that it has to be that way. A lot of social media exposures can lead to those positive things — connection, warmth, and generosity. We’re just going to have to program a little bit more — be selective and be positive and be creative — in order to get more of those positive things out.
Q. How do you think the pandemic has impacted people’s use of social media and attitudes toward it?
A. It was really a lifeline for a lot of people. Certainly we have to be very grateful for that, and we have to look back on that and say, “How did this truly help me?” There’s no question that people were able to make connections and continue to do things that they never could have done otherwise. But at the same time, there certainly have been increases in certain kinds of miscommunications. In the case of COVID, I think that it was able to fill a lot of voids. But we also saw a lot of depression and anxiety and isolation — in other words, the gold standard of relationship and communication is still in person.
Q. What do you see as the ideal relationship to social media?
A. Generally, we’re going to suggest fewer platforms. We’re going to suggest selecting people carefully, rather than being more lax with your social media circles. With regard to positivity, we are going to ask people to very specifically think about what’s their negativity threshold. If somebody does not ever want to offend anyone on social media, then they shouldn’t even engage in social media. Since there always will be negativity, how can you prepare for it? How can we change the equation by filling our feed with a lot of positivity? On the creative side, we would suggest becoming a real wizard with alerts, so that a person is very much in control of when they’re getting notified and interrupted.
Q. Do you feel hopeful about the future of social media?
A. It can be done better than it is right now. But I also realize that we are up against a lot. There’s a huge financial incentive for companies and platforms to do anything they can to keep our attention, even if our attention could be used better in other ways for ourselves in our missions. There’s going to be, I think, a clash, and we’re going to continue to deal with that for years. Hopefully, we will give people more tools and guidelines so that they can be in a situation where they are using social media to improve their lives, rather than having the media use the individuals.
Interview was edited and condensed.