Imagine with me: Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook without any metrics.
You log onto the app, and see the same pictures from your friends and the latest food videos from creators like Emily Mariko — but there's no number of likes, no number of views, and no number of comments. You don't know how many followers other people on the app have, or how many followers you have. You don't even know the number of people you follow. There's no way to quantify your experience — and no numerical way to compare it to others.
Tying numbers to our lives online has made our popularity quantifiable and, some say, that has deepened an unhealthy reliance on potential virality on the apps that can lead to political extremism and mental health problems, particularly for young people.
Quantified popularity — the ability to see comment counts, like counts, follower counts, view counts, and all of the other metrics people use online — has become the surefire way of keeping track of our digital scoreboards. Tech companies are fighting to keep it, because these metrics can breed obsession with their apps. And influencers rely on those numbers to prove their worth and land brand deals. But politicians and activists are working to eliminate it completely in the hopes of making social media a safer place for young people. Mental health experts, though, say there isn't one easy cure for creating a version of social media that does what you want it to do — create community and connect people — without hurting kids and incentivizing political extremism.
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It's clear that quantified popularity is so core to the business model that the tech companies themselves would likely never eliminate, or even regulate, it on their own. In May, Instagram announced that users would have the option to hide like counts on all posts in their feed, and hide like counts on their own posts, so others can't see how many likes your own posts get. Internally, the move was called "Project Daisy" — like "Does she love me? Or love me not?" — according to the New York Times.
However, Instagram found that removing likes didn't actually depressurize Instagram for anyone. Just removing like counts doesn't actually say much about the effect eliminating quantified popularity would have on users. A few young users told Mashable in September that hiding likes didn't do much for them because they could still see other metrics, like comments, and follower counts.
"What we've seen, for instance, with project Daisy, is that [Facebook and Instagram] only introduce things that give the appearance of addressing the problem but that their own research showed that it wasn't actually going to change how kids behaved on the platform," Josh Golin, the executive director of Fairplay, a nonprofit that works to make the internet a safer place for kids, told Mashable. "I don't think it's something they would change on their own, but it's absolutely fundamental."
No matter how you cut it, there's a problem with how young people experience life on social media. In documents leaked to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook's own research found that "Instagram is harmful to a sizable percentage of [teens], most notably teenage girls." This comes during an epidemic for young people: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after a stable period from 2000 to 2007, the rate of suicide among people 10 to 24 years old increased by 56 percent from 2007 to 2017, making suicide the second leading cause of death in the age group, following accidents.
It's not possible to say certainly why suicide has become such a crisis for young people in the U.S., but many experts attribute part of the rise to social media. Instagram launched in 2010 and, according to the Pew Research Center, nearly twice as many teens said they used the internet "almost constantly" in 2018 than in 2014.
Congress is, potentially, interfering. Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Markey and his colleagues reintroduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act in September. It would, among other acts, ban quantitative popularity among all users under 16.
"When kids are on these platforms all the time, and the prevailing message that they're getting from the design of the platform is that the way to succeed at social media is to collect as many friends as possible, those messages are going to get lost," Golin said. "And kids are going to make decisions just to drive up the numbers that could actually put them at risk of predation. So I think this is a fundamental problem that needs to be addressed, which is why we like the KIDS Act."
Sen. Markey told Mashable in an email that platforms like Instagram "create an online popularity contest" for young users, which can be detrimental to their mental health.
Everyone can immediately see who is the most popular and who is the least popular.
"Everyone can immediately see who is the most popular and who is the least popular," Sen. Markey said. "It's no surprise that Facebook's own research links Instagram to anxiety and depression among young users. That’s why I’ve re-introduced the Kids Internet Design and Safety Act. My bill would ban 'like' buttons and follower counts, which quantify levels of popularity, on apps for children and teens. It's time for Congress to take immediate action to ban online design features that are harming kids online."
But mental health experts say the answer isn't so cut and dry. Sure, eliminating quantified popularity could help a lot of kids — but a generation plagued by mental health issues fueled by social media won't find solace in a one-size-fits-all solution. You'll still be left with people who are learning to communicate and forming relationships in a completely different way than those before them. The first things we see when we wake up and the last thing we see before we go to sleep are a bully's comment on a post, a nemesis winning the award we were in the running for, or your friends hanging out without you. There's no longer any separation between school, society, and home.
There's no longer any separation between school, society, and home.
And eliminating quantified popularity could also disrupt a massive industry of influencers and influencer marketing teams. Rachel Richter, an influencer marketing manager at Nickelodeon, told Mashable that she uses metrics like followers, like counts, and comment counts on posts all the time for her work. Of course, she also looks at an influencers' quality of content and their audience, but eliminating quantitative popularity metrics would cause her "to have to figure out a different way to quantify how much [influencers are] worth."
"I don't know if this is something that's being discussed as an option, but, in my mind, I think it'd be totally fair for the regular user accounts to remove those metrics publicly," Richter said. "But, if you have a business or creator account, it should be visible. If you are putting yourself out there as a business or creator, you're kind of opting in into that world."
Richter pointed out that there are potentials for something in the middle — a regulation that might make it safer for young people but would still enable her to do her job, businesses to see their growth, and influencers to properly utilize their own metrics.
But Golin says shaking up the influencer business while it could be difficult for the people who work within the billion-dollar industry, could lead to positive outcomes for young people.
I think actually influencers being hurt by it would actually be a good thing when it comes to children.
"I think actually influencers being hurt by it would actually be a good thing when it comes to children," Golin said. "Children and teens themselves are saying that influencers make them feel bad about themselves, and not just about how they look, but about their class status. And seeing these opulent lifestyles makes kids more materialistic and there's a whole body of research that shows that that being more materialistic is linked to bad outcomes for kids and teens."
Beyond the comparison that can lead to negative mental health outcomes for teens, influencers' relationships with their teen audiences have been controversial since their inception. There are no ways to guarantee that they'll be a good influence: It's not always JoJo Siwa, sometimes it's the Paul brothers.
Megan Moreno, a principal investigator of the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told Mashable that there's space to try out what we can to make social media safer. While she thinks the idea of fully eliminating quantitative popularity is "an interesting idea," she is "not hugely optimistic that it will make a gigantic difference." That's because the idea of likes is so engrained in our society already, that the concept will be there if it's turned off or not. And, she adds, popularity isn't completely numerical.
"The concept of popularity — there is a quantitative aspect to it — but there's a huge qualitative aspect to it," Moreno said. "Having a few good friends who like a post or having someone that you look up to that likes your posts can mean a lot more to a team than a number count. I think it's an interesting idea in an experiment. And, hopefully, someone's looking at that data, but I think it also can let us reflect on the larger picture of where that fits in."
It can be heartbreaking if your crush doesn't like your post, or comment on a photo of you. It can be painful to watch your friends hang out without you. It can be devastating to be confronted with your FOMO so constantly through the screen. And eliminating quantified popularity won't fix those less numerical measures of popularity.
That's where the algorithm comes in, Moreno said. Each company's algorithm is different, but none are void of problems. TikTok's For You Page recommendation algorithm led users from transphobic content quickly to other kinds of far-right extremism, according to research from Media Matters. Instagram has come under fire for promoting eating disorder-positive content through its algorithm. And congress is eyeing moves to regulate Facebook's algorithm.
"We're thinking about changes to social media and our discussion, but there's a huge variable, which is what does the youth bring to the table when they sit down with their iPad or their phone?" Moreno said. "How much resilience do they have, how much vulnerability do they have?"
One of those moving parts is the young people themselves. Chris Barry, a professor in the Department of Psychology at Washington State University, told Mashable that it comes down to the "mindset, the meaning, and the impotence attached to social media."
"Obviously for things like quantified popularity or other aspects of what happens on these platforms, the more importance a person attaches to it, the more distress could be associated with it as well," Barry said. "Versus if we sort of use it as just one tool to stay connected to others or get information or share interests or share experiences, maybe it's not such a bad thing."
He said educating users on how to create a meaningful connection to social media without letting it overwhelm their lives is one of the key parts necessary to create a healthy relationship with the internet.
Facebook appears to be, for its part, making some moves to do just that. It paused plans for Instagram Kids and, more recently, said it would introduce new measures to nudge young users away from harmful content and encourage them to "take a break" from the apps. It does not appear to be interested in eliminating quantified popularity, and the reasoning there is pretty clear — it would hurt the platforms and the most powerful users.
"I think it's really unlikely that there's going to be a single solution," Moreno said. "We can think more about it as a series of moving parts and not get too excited about one single solution."
If you want to talk to someone or are experiencing suicidal thoughts, Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24/7. Text CRISIS to 741741 to be connected to a crisis counselor. Contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI, Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. – 8:00 p.m. ET, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.