How to Navigate Social Media in a Healthy Way: Digital Wellness Expert Max Stossel Speaks at MBSThis Head of School blog is a two-part summary of Max Stossel's presentation to the MBS community on Digital Wellness. Max is an award winning poet, filmmaker and speaker. Max is also the Head of Education and Content for the Center for Humane Technology, which is comprised of former tech insiders and CEOs dedicated to realigning technology with humanity’s best interests. Before that, Max was a media strategist with an extensive background in social and he studied the facebook algorithm while advising multinational brands. He is a graduate of Haverford College, where he majored in Psychology and minored in Economics. He has spoken with thousands of students, parents and educators about kids and technology and met with our students, faculty and families in early April.
Max Stossel's talks with Middle and Upper School students in Founders Hall titled “We’ve Been Sneaking Into Your Brain: The True Impact of Social Media” were thought-provoking and brought the entire MBS community together to reflect on their relationships with technology and social media.
In this two-part blog series, we recap key topics explored by Max’s keynote on digital wellness, including how to set healthy boundaries when using social media.
1. Social Media Companies’ Goal is to Monopolize Your Attention
“Have you ever looked down at your phone or computer and then immediately gotten distracted or forgot what you were doing to spend more time in the app?” Max asked the students at the start of his presentation. Nearly every student raised their hand.
“That was my job,” Max said. “I worked for a social media company where my job was to capture consumer attention. What should the next piece of content in your feed be to keep you swiping? If we autoplay videos, will you stay longer? Let’s do that.”
Social media and gaming companies have a clear goal to monopolize consumer attention, Max said. They use variable rewards including likes, notifications, and autoplaying videos to make technology addictive. People may want to leave an app, but these features keep them coming back.
“We keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling and we’re rewarded like a slot machine,” said Max. “TikTok has figured out some new tricks for this. Social media companies are all competing for your time and attention. And sadly these companies cannot look at you as human beings with hopes and dreams, friendships and relationships.”
Given the incredible amount of data and control social media companies have over our attention, Max urged MBS students to use technology as a tool, rather than allowing it to use them.
2. The Impact of Social Media on Our Relationships
It's hard to imagine modern life without technology—it has transformed how we live, create, and communicate.
But it seems like those who limit their use of social media feel better about their time. A recent study by The Center for Humane Technology with more than 200,000 people found that on average, people who felt good about their use of social media and gaming apps used them 2.4-times less.
Max asked students to think of when they have felt most alive, free, and connected to the people that they love. He then asked how many of them were thinking of a time when they were on social media. Not a single person raised their hand.
“We're carrying around this device 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” said Max. “It's never been easier to get pulled into a mindless thing - oftentimes that we're not even really enjoying.”
Max asked students to think of the times in their life when they have felt most alive, free, and connected to the people that they love. After pausing to let the students reflect, he then asked how many of them were thinking of a time when they were on social media. Not a single person raised their hand.
“It’s interesting to me that, considering how much time we spend on social media, it actually brings us very little happiness and doesn’t make us feel connected,” he said. “It’s very hard to have an intentional relationship with this stuff.”
Max stressed the importance of finding balance with technology and how asking the right questions can help students to start to change their habits.
Ask yourself: “What do you actually want to do in those moments of loneliness, boredom, or anxiety (which is when we usually turn to social media)? Do you want to actually do things that make you feel any sort of goodness or joy? Or do you just turn to this thing that is here all the time and scroll? Thinking about that question is actually a really helpful way to try to shift a habit.”
“It might be that you’re going to pick three friends to text, and then take a breath instead of continuing to scroll. Or it could literally be going outside to touch grass. Or learning something new. What else might you want to do in that moment to actually make you feel good?”
3. Mental Health, Self-Esteem, and Self-Worth
Social media can be a double-edged sword for mental health. On the one hand, it's a great way to stay connected with friends and family. On the other, it can also be a source of depression, especially for teens or individuals who face issues related to body image, self-esteem, and online validation.
“We all have this magical device in our pockets,” shared Max. “How then with this magical device, are we also seeing an incredible rise in anxiety, depression, conflict, and chaos. How can something so awesome also be creating such a mess?”
Max shared examples of how social media can create a distorted sense of reality, often leading to superficial interactions that leave us feeling more disconnected or lonely.
“Social media is not a reflection of real life at all,” said Max. “If you're scrolling lonely and being like, ‘Oh, why is everyone having a great time without me? They are in a relationship, and I'm single. They got into a college, and I didn't, or their life is great, and mine isn't’. Whatever it might be. It just doesn't feel good. Self comparison is like a thief of joy, and you could not build a better self-comparison machine than social media.”
Max also talked about how social media can creep into real life even when we're not using screens at all. An example is people who think about what picture they want to take, who to take it with, what caption to use, and who to tag in their post before an event has even happened.
“Sometimes people only go to a place or hang out with certain people because they want to take a photo, or they only stay in romantic relationships to look #blessed and in love on TikTok and Instagram. Across some of the most intimate moments of our lives, we're letting these social media tentacles creep in and influence us in ways that aren't actually about us at all.”
4. “Am I Using Technology, or Is Technology Using Me?”
Max also shared several other examples of how social media can negatively impact our lives if we give it too much attention. Snapchat’s Streaks rewards users for sending snaps back and forth with friends every day, which may seem harmless, but can also create pressure and anxiety.
“Streaks are a really powerful tool at getting us to come back and use the app every day and gamify friendships,” Max said. “But then something weird starts to happen. It starts to feel like, if we break this streak, are we really friends? Or, ooh, what does it say about me if I don’t have these streaks going? It starts to feel like it’s some kind of real measure of friendship, which of course is ridiculous to say out loud, but it starts to feel real in some strange way.”
This pressure can be detrimental to our mental health, Max said. A friend of his, who works at a psychiatric hospital, told Max that teens are often terrified to give up their phones because it would mean ending their streaks on Snapchat.
To maintain a healthy relationship with technology, Max urged the MBS community to take mindful breaks from social media and listen to how it makes them feel.
"I was a gamer growing up, and I would play Halo for like six hours at a time,” Max shared. “If you were to ask me how Halo made me feel, I might have told you the first hour I was excited and having a good time. But the next five hours? I was mostly stressed and angry in a fit of rage trying to get to the next level."
“Whether it's gaming or social media, it’s important to ask yourself: how is this actually making my body feel? Am I using technology or is technology using me? Am I here on purpose? Am I doing this because I actually want to, or am I just falling into a loop of mindlessly checking my phone again?”
In part two of this blog series, we discuss additional takeaways from Max’s keynote at MBS, including the impact of social media on perception and beliefs. Max also shares his digital health tips and actions the MBS community can apply to create healthier habits with social media.