Monday, October 14, 2013

Harm Reduction in Social Networking

A term that is already known and used by psychiatrists, social works, and other health care practitioners  and one that I find useful when talking about social networking is "harm reduction." The basic definition is relatively easy to understand.  People who engage in certain inherently "dangerous" (either to physical well-being or mental well-being) activities may not want to stop.  For medical professionals, these activities may include intravenous drug use or certain sexual practices.   From a harm reduction perspective, if people are going to engage in these dangerous activities it would be prudent to reduce the amount of harm that these activities cause.  For intravenous drug use, this would mean having a safe needle exchange program.  For sexual practices, this might mean providing sex education and making condoms readily available.
In an analogous manner, the ethos of harm reduction would outline a similar approach for those suffering from the ill effects of chronic social networking use or internet addiction.  The bottom line is that people are going to use the internet and social networking sites, but the ever-growing body of literature pertaining to the pernicious effects of chronic use affords us an opportunity to reduce the harm this use may cause.
For example, studies show a correlation between social networking use and lower levels of self-esteem (in tweens, Nass & Pea, 2010).  This correlation was mitigated by face-to-face contact.  The harm reduction model for counteracting FOMO (fear of missing out), skewed social perceptions (everyone is happy on Facebook), and the like may be insisting on a certain amount of face-to-face contact.
Other interventions may involve education as to the negatives of internet use, motivating a voluntary stoppage or restraint on use.  One of the richest areas for this sort of education is reaching out to children, either in school or at home because the possible negative effects are most influential on the developing mind.
With the scientific evidence mounting, we now have a clear path to reducing the amount of harm induced by chronic social networking.  The key is to get this research into the hands of designers and developers so they can implement a new way of thinking that cares for the user's psychological well-being by way of harm reduction.


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