social mediaSocial media, in its so far brief lifetime, has had its share of both good and bad press. It has been treated with a certain amount of disdain and contempt by those who believe it is being treated a bad substitute for really engaging with the world. But there are also increasingly common stories of people using it to create a closer community in the world – people who use it to make art, or to generate charity, or to fund life-saving operations for suffering kids.

Generally, social media is a tool that some people use to do amazing things and some people use to do horrible things. It provides opportunities to magnify your dreams. For some people, that means raising money to 3D print new limbs for children born without them. For others, it means Tweeting people insults and threats.

And while it is rightly celebrated for the truly wonderful things it has helped people achieve, they don’t make always make up for the negative ways in can affect people.

People don’t have to be outright nasty for someone to suffer.

Social networks like Facebook offer people a chance to magnify their neuroses and their sensitivities. People get obsessed with the number of Likes they get on photos, they follow other people’s business sometimes too closely. They take serious offence when someone doesn’t reply immediately to their messages. The truth is that, while it has the potential to help people maximise their kindness, it also has the potential to exploit their insecurities.

It can exacerbate someone’s paranoia or hurt. People who are upset with their friends torment themselves with it.

And, that way, it can hasten the kind of misery that it can be difficult to pull yourself out of.

Robert Morris at MIT noticed that, sometimes, social media designed to bring people together can instead make them feel even more isolated. He started work on Panoply.

Panoply is a social media app designed very specifically to make people feel good about things, to share their problems in a way that makes them feel safe and to find ways of fixing them. Having studied Psychology at Princeton University, Morris put a lot of research into what made people happy, what made them feel connected to their friends and what made them feel like part of a community. He put his findings into the core structure of Panoply.

It has been put together with the purpose of relieving the stress of depression, on the foundation that people are far more inclined to air their hurt on social media than actually seek help from professionals.

Panoply helps people with these kinds of thoughts primarily by exercising simple cognitive behavioural therapy. Without seeming clinical or wooden, it encourages people to see their problems objectively, to consider how they feel about them, to think about how they would advise someone else to deal with them. It delicately readjusts users’ thought process to put them in a more positive frame of mind.

Users are invited to share their own problems and to support others with theirs. The app brings people together by allowing them to trust others with their issues and to help when they see people suffering. By helping in this way, users learn to make better and more consistent use of the problem-solving skills that will get them through their own issues, too.

The research on Panoply is only recently being published, but it does look very promising. Users showed significant improvements in how they handle depression after using it for just three weeks.

Morris is now in the process of developing it as a consumer app. It may be a little while longer before it is widely available, as it has some refining to go through yet. But when it is released, it is predicted to do well in a society like ours that widely consumes self-help books and better living advice from all kinds of outlets.

To give people a more directed chance to actively help others will create the kind of community that only a handful of people have achieved already on social media. It will provide a better, more easily accessible framework for mental health. Hopefully, it will help bring people the kind of support they need, from those who really do understand.

Kirstie Summers,

Daily Zen.

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