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December 20, 2019
by Tina Arnoldi

Facebook Encourages Private Mental Health Conversations

December 20, 2019 08:05 by Tina Arnoldi  [About the Author]

Facebook rolled out new photo filters and stickers to “act as an invitation for friends who might be struggling to reach out for support through Messenger.” This is meant to be a tool to encourage users to connect with friends online about mental health. But there are concerns about passive data collection on different platforms, such as Facebook, so it is debatable whether this will help or hurt mental health.

Brittany Sherell, MA believes "it is a step in the right direction for Facebook to introduce this concept of private mental health conversations. Many people understand that social media has had an adverse effect on their health, but they may not have the discipline to avoid it. Meeting these people where they are is a great way for Facebook to assume a marginal role of social responsibility in this matter.”

Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst, concurs there may be value even though it’s a shallow connection. “It is always nice to feel the people are out there,  with a sticker or a friendly remark.” But it’s not enough. “While Facebook is trying to increase its usefulness for online connections, incentivizing users to integrate messenger is something only coders with immature relationships would conjure; when you truly care about someone, Facebook stickers aren't enough.”

Even with encouraging stickers, communications are only a small part mental health treatment. Monisha Vasa, M.D, a psychiatrist reminds people that the internet is not a substitute for true mental health support. “We must also prioritize confidentiality, getting those who are suffering connected to professional help, and showing up in real life for those in need,” said Vasa.  

And it’s possible these conversations might encourage people to give advice outside their scope of knowledge. Dr. Nancy Irwin, psychologist and therapist, cautions about strangers or untrained, but well-intentioned armchair therapists giving advice. “Hopefully, the emojis will be followed up with resources for local help for suffering individuals."

Not everyone is on board with this new feature. Ray Walsh, a digital privacy expert, reminds people of Facebook’s poor track record when it comes to protecting sensitive data. He's concerned that “Facebook’s servers could be breached by hackers or that  Facebook employees could access the message content - and that a data mishap could result in the contents of messages being leaked online.”

Consumers also need to be wary of sharing sensitive medical information on Facebook, because the firm is a data broker that is funded via targeted advertising. Walsh cautions that “providing personal information on Messenger potentially opens the door to Facebook collecting that data to add it to its user database. Previous studies have revealed that Facebook likes can be used to form startlingly precise secondary inferences. Mental health revelations uploaded to Facebook messenger could potentially be exploited to create a revenue stream and to further tailor ads to users.”

Facebook data is already sold for retail ads but personal mental health data could potentially be sold to medical insurance companies. Walsh worries that “mental health revelations shared among friends could eventually affect their eligibility for certain products and services and their future insurance premiums. Some concerns even exist over the future potential for statements made on social media to lead to intervention by the medical profession or the state.”

While Courtney Howard, M.D, a psychiatrist, does share the concern about privacy, she thinks  “it is better for Facebook to have this feature than not to have it at all. People sometimes cannot find the words to say, so having a tool can at least help them alert someone that something is going on with them. In terms of a risk-benefit analysis, a life saved is definitely a greater benefit than the risk of having your privacy exposed.”

And since social media and digital connections are here to stay, Vasa believes we should continue looking at how such platforms can be used for good. She said, “Facebook's new filters and stickers are intended to support meaningful connections between individuals by encouraging open communication, sharing struggles, and asking for and receiving help during times of need--in a fun and easy way.” Although it's a start, here is more work to be done if mental health conversations are encouraged online. Luiz notes that “while the incentive to use Messenger for a more compassionate private connection makes it more user-friendly to say ‘I’m here,’ the very fact that it is built-in is not going to create a deeper connection.”

But for Walsh, even though social media is here to stay, there is still the argument of whether people should even Facebook at all. “What seems troubling,” said Walsh, “is that social media platforms like Facebook have previously been linked to mental health problems. Former Facebook employees have come forward to suggest that Facebook is designed to addict people to its platform. What’s more, the data that Facebook holds about consumers may be enough to trigger anxiety.” That said, perhaps the best answer is just deleting your Facebook account.

About the Author

Tina Arnoldi

Tina Arnoldi, MA is a business consultant and freelance writer in Charleston SC. She has reviewed books for PsychCentral and has a portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com


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