How to design social media for better mental health

Thinking about ways to design good social media experiences.
Conceptual designs for healthy social media (Studio Output)

Social media can be great for self-expression, community involvement, and staying connected with friends and family. But there's also evidence it's associated with feelings of depression and anxiety, among other negative health results.

Studio Output is a design studio in London, England. They came across a number of stories about these impacts, such as a report by the Royal Society for Public Health, about the negative - and positive - impacts of social media on users under age 25 (download the PDF here).

So they decided to come up with design concepts for social media.
Dave McDougall (Studio Output )
The goal of the concepts is to open up a space for people in tech to think about the impact of their social media design decisions.

Dave McDougall is the Strategic Director at Studio Output.

"As designers, and working within the digital space a lot and the marketing space a lot, maybe that's something we should start to be having a think about," says Dave, explaining the origins of the idea.

"If we're designing content for young people on social platforms, we've kind of got a responsibility to design that in a really good way."

Profile Health design concept (Studio Output)

They designed eight concepts, such as Profile Health, which would label social media profiles according to their content, in order to give users quick insights into accounts that may be more or less 'healthy' for them to follow.

Design concept for the Activity Tracking tool (Studio Output)

There's also Activity Tracking, which draws on the analogy of fitness trackers, like the FitBit, or Google Fit.

Designer Ana Neves ((Studio Output))

"In the same way that we use a fitness app to track how much we run and to set up goals, could we start to visualize how much we use Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat," explains Ana Neves, a designer at Studio Output.

"This platform could perhaps help you set goals...You could look at your timeline and see 'oh, I've been a lot more focused on Wednesday than I've been on Friday."

I must confess this idea came from my personal experience, because I always go on Instagram.- Ana Neves, designer

Once social media use is under control, Free Your Focus is a concept designed to suggest non-social media activities, taking advantage of the time you're not spending on social.

Design concept for Free Your Focus (Studio Output)

"One really interesting tweet that we saw when we were researching this project was from a guy who gave up Twitter and, I think, learned Spanish in the down time," says Dave.

"If you were to take five minutes out of your day to call your mom, or tell someone you love them, or go for a walk, those are all really positive things you can do...Could those be as easy to access as scrolling endlessly through an Instagram feed," he says.

"The whole idea is just to inspire people to be doing something different," adds Ana. "And I must confess this idea came from my personal experience, because I always go on Instagram, [such as when] I'm waiting for a meeting!'"

There's an increase in imagery that builds pictures of idealistic body image, idealistic lifestyle. -  Dave McDougall

These concepts are meant to address an issue at the heart of design of today's social media.

"I kind of have an unscientific view that the platforms are designed to be quite addictive places, and they're designed kind of like an entertainment system would be, rather than a communication platform," Dave says.

But there's also a problem with the kind of content some people are posting.

"There's an increase in manipulated imagery, there's an increase in imagery that builds pictures of idealistic body image, idealistic lifestyle. We all know how aspirational a lot of Instagram content can be."

But given that the business model of these social media companies lies in getting users to spend more time on these platforms and engage with the content more, are they likely to actually build these kinds of features?

"If those environments start to be seen as unhealthy...then I kind of suspect that people will start to use them less," says Dave.

"There's a real incentive there to make those platforms great for people, because...they're going to be great for the brands these platforms are serving ultimately."

Also of interest, Facebook's founding president, Sean Parker on the attention grab of social media.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.