Privacy, polarization, and psychological toll

by Sam Bazant
by Sam Bazant

Social media has been around for decades, and its use and influence are ubiquitous today. Despite its popularity, social media companies have faced repeated criticism and backlash in recent years. Everyone from politicians and parents to former "big tech" employees and even investors and teens have expressed discontent with the platforms. Their critiques range from the harm caused to individual users to the negative impact on society at large. Businesses and technologists today can learn a great deal from the shortcomings of a mature technology market like social media, specifically around 1) developing products and business models with users’ interests in mind 2) designing for inclusivity and 3) understanding the broader context in which products are used.


The influence and role of social media has changed significantly since its early days. Since the 2000’s, the number and usage of social media platforms has increased dramatically. Today, the average American internet user spends an estimated 2 hours and 30 minutes per day browsing social media. While the primary reason for using social media remains connecting with friends and family, social media has also fundamentally changed the way we learn about the world, meet new people, make purchases, and spend our time: the chart below shows the most popular reasons for internet users worldwide to use social media as of 2022.

Many of these changes have opened the door for novel ways to connect with others and there are a number of benefits people cite about social media. In recent years, though, it seems the social media giants – namely Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube – have weathered scandal after scandal. These have included allegations that harvested Facebook data was used to influence the 2016 US presidential election; reports of radicalization from YouTube’s recommendations algorithm; widespread data sharing without users’ consent; and a leaked report about the negative effects of social media on teen girls’ mental health.

These examples illustrate many of the problems with social media platforms’ underlying business model. Critics broadly characterize this business model in relation to the attention economy: Platforms’ advertising-based revenue models (and pressure from investors who expect “hockey stick” growth) create incentives to hold users’ attention since the more engaged users are and the more time they spend on a platform, the more valuable the platform becomes for advertisers. 

Platforms are thus designed in ways to maximize user engagement. The consequences of these design choices are often the target of social media criticism, which converges around a few key themes: 


  • Privacy: Social media companies collect and monetize huge amounts of personally-identifiable information and sensitive data from users’ activity on their platforms (often unbeknownst to users themselves or without explicit user consent) and then sell this data to third-parties for targeted advertisements. 
  • Polarization: Due to platforms’ recommendation algorithms, users engage with content that is personalized to them which can lead to echo chambers, confirmation bias, and filter bubbles. Platforms also amplify sensational and emotionally triggering content, which contributes to the spread of mis/disinformation and conspiracy theories as well as harmful and hateful content. 
  • Psychological toll: Social media use is correlated with poorer mental health (especially among young people), increased stress and anxiety, and feelings of loneliness and depression. The addictive nature of social media – a result of design choices to keep users engaged and constantly checking in – can contribute to overuse and exacerbate harmful effects. 

While these negative effects are well-known, social media companies enjoy few regulations – and little accountability – in terms of consumer protections, ethics compliance, data governance, and transparency requirements relative to other industries. 


Despite this, a growing number of social media platforms – such as BeReal and Troo – are paving a new path for social media that respects individual users’ agency, privacy, and wellbeing while avoiding broader harms to communities and society. Below are some design principles which businesses and technologists can consider to avoid the failures of today’s social media giants and build on the foundation that new platforms are creating. These principles can be applied across business models, product development, and data usage, among other areas.


  1. From Time-on-Site to Time-Well-Spent. Consider how a platform’s success metrics - like time spent - can contribute to negative outcomes for users (such as addiction, poor mental health, etc). Identify and develop a business model around metrics which incentivize design choices that empower and respect users’ privacy, wellbeing, and safety. By focusing on the underlying business model and key metrics, platforms can ensure that future design choices will reduce harmful effects while still creating a sustainable business.
  2. From Design for a Few to Design with Inclusivity. Adopt an inclusive and equity-centered approach to designing products. Understand how users may be disparately harmed or excluded from using a platform based on gender, race, age, sexuality, ability, and other aspects of their identity. Platforms have a responsibility to reduce bias, exclusion, and harm to all users and should proactively design with this in mind, especially if they hope to create a positive experience for a diverse and global community of users. 
  3. From Move Fast and Break Things to Slow Down and Restore Trust. Understand and consider the broader context in which a product will be used and what its implications - both positive and negative - might be. Design and test new features or scenarios with small groups of users to anticipate and mitigate unintended consequences or potential for misuse before they become a problem. As consumers demand more from the platforms they use, it will be increasingly important for companies to design against the negative impacts of their products. 

In a world where tech – especially social media – is everywhere, companies have a responsibility to design products and platforms that better serve users, communities, and our society. Not only is it the right thing to do ethically, but there’s also growing market opportunity as consumer expectations shift, new platforms pave the way for different business models, and regulation puts pressure on companies looking to scale globally. 

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