Strangely accommodative of problems

I am returning to the strictly speaking written blogging, after a long break, which I devoted to preparing educational material for the upcoming winter semester 2020/2021. I am outlining a line of research which I can build my teaching around, in the same time. Something looms, and that something is my old obsession: collective intelligence of our human societies and its connection to artificial intelligence. Well, when I say ‘old’, it means ‘slightly seasoned’. I mean, I have been nurturing that obsession for a total of like 4 years, with having it walking around and talking like for the last 18 months or so. It is not truly old, even if ideas were red wine. Anyway, the current shade I paint into that obsession of mine is that human societies have a built-in mechanism of creating new social roles for new humans coming in, in the presence of demographic growth. Cities are very largely factories of social roles, in my view. Close, intense social interactions in a limited space are a mechanism of accelerated collective learning, whence accelerated formation of new skillsets, and those new skillsets, all they need is an opportunity to earn a living with and they turn into social roles.

I have a deep feeling that digital platforms, ranging from the early-hominid-style things like Twitter, all the way up to working and studying via MS Teams or Zoom, have developed as another accelerator of social roles. This accelerator works differently. It is essentially spaceless, although, on the large scale, it is very energy consuming at the level of server power. Still, early cities used to shape new social roles through the skilled labour they required to be built and expanded. A substantial part of whatever we think we know about mathematics and physics comes from geometry, which, in turn, comes from architecture and early machine-building. Similarly, digital platforms make new social roles by stimulating the formation of new skillsets required to develop those platforms, and then to keep them running.

Crazy thoughts come to my mind. What if we, humans, are truly able to think ahead, like really ahead, many generations ahead? What if by the mid-20th century we collectively told ourselves: ‘Look, guys. We mean, us. Cities are great, but there is more and more of us around, all that lot needs food, and food needs agricultural land to be grown and bred on. We need to keep the surface of agricultural land intact at the least, or slightly growing at best, whence the necessity to keep the total surface of urban land under control. Still, we need that space of intense social interactions to make new social roles. Tough nut to crack, this one. Cool, so here is the deal: we start by shrinking transistors to a size below the perceptual capacity of human sight, which is going to open up on a whole range of electronic technologies, which, in turn, will make it worthwhile to create a whole new family of languages just for giving them orders, to those electronics. Hopefully, after 2 or 3 human generations, that is going to create a new plane of social interactions, sort of merging with cities and yet sort of supplanting them’.

And so I follow that trail of collective human intelligence configuring itself in the view of making enough social roles for new humans coming. I am looking for parallels with the human brain. I know, I know, this is a bit far-fetched as parallel, still it is better than nothing. Anyway, in the brain, there is the cortex, i.e. the fancy intellectual, then we have the limbic system, i.e. the romantic Lord Byron, and finally there is the hypothalamus, i.e. the primitive stuff in charge of vegetative impulses. Do we have such distinct functional realms in our collective intelligence? I mean, do we have a subsystem that generates elementary energies (i.e. capacities to perform basic types of action), another one which finds complex cognitive bearings in the world, and something in between, which mediates between objective data and fundamental drives, forming something like preferences, proclivities, values etc. ?

Cool. Enough philosophy. Let’s get into science. As I am writing about digital platforms, I can do something useful just as well, i.e. I can do some review of literature and use it both in my own science and in my teaching. Here comes an interesting paper by Beeres et al. (2020[1]) regarding the correlation between the use of social media, and the prevalence of mental health problems among adolescents in Sweden. The results are strangely similar to the correlation between unemployment and criminality, something I know well from my baseline field of science, i.e. economics. It is a strong correlation across space and a weak, if not a non-existent one over time. The intensity of using social media by Swedish adolescents seems to be correlated positively with the incidence of mental disorders, i.e. adolescents with higher a probability of such disorders tend to use social media more heavily than those mentally more robust adolescents. Still, when an adolescent person increases their starting-point intensity of using social media, that change is not correlated longitudinally with an increased incidence of mental disorders. In other words, whoever is solid in the beginning, stays this way, and whoever is f**ked up, stays that way, too.

The method of research presented in that paper looks robust. The sample is made of 3959 willing participants, fished out from among an initial sample of 12 512 people. This is respectable, as social science comes. The gauge of mental health was Strength and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ), which is practically 100% standardized (Goodman & Goodman 2009[2]) and allows distinguishing between internalized, emotional and peer problems on the one hand, and those externalized ones, connected to conduct and hyperactivity. If you are interested in the exact way this questionnaire looks, you can go and consult: . The use of social media was self-reported, as answer to the question on the number of hours spent on social media, writing or reading blogs, and chatting online, separately for weekdays and weekends. That answer was standardized, on a scale ranging from 30 minutes a day up to 7 hours a day. Average daily time spent on social media was calculated on the basis of answers given.

The results reported by Beeres et al. (2020) are interesting in a few different ways. Firstly, they seem to discard very largely the common claim that increased use of social media contributes to increased prevalence of mental disorders in adolescents. Intensive use of social media is rather symptomatic of such disorders. That would reverse the whole discourse about this specific phenomenon. Instead of saying ‘Social media make kids go insane’, we should be rather saying ‘Social media facilitate the detection of mental disorders’. Still, one problem remains: if the most intense use of social media among adolescents is observable in those most prone to mental disorders, we have a possible scenario where either the whole culture forming on and through social media, or some specific manifestations thereof, are specifically adapted to people with mental disorders.

Secondly, we have a general case of a digital technology serving a specific social function, i.e. that of mediating social relations of a specific social group (adolescents in developed countries) in a specific context (propensity to mental disorders). Digital technologies are used as surrogate of other social interactions, in people who most likely have hard times going through such interactions.

Another paper, still warm, straight from bakery, by Lin et al. (2020[3]), is entitled ‘Investigating mediated effects of fear of COVID-19 and COVID-19 misunderstanding in the association between problematic social media use, psychological distress, and insomnia’. The first significant phenomena it is informative about is the difficulty to make a simple, catchy title for a scientific paper. Secondly, the authors start from the same hypothesis which Beeres et al. (2020) seem to have discarded, namely that social media use (especially problematic social media use) may give rise to psychological distress. Moreover, Lin et al. (2020) come to the conclusion that it is true. Same science, same hypothesis, different results. I f**king love science. You just need to look into the small print.

The small print here starts with the broad social context. Empirical research by Lin et al. (2020) was conducted in Iran, on participants over 18 years old, whose participation was acquired via Google Forms. The sample consisted of 1506 persons, with an average age of 26 years, and a visible prevalence of women, who made over 58% of the sample. The tool used for detecting mental disorders was the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS). The follow up period was of two weeks, against two years in the case of research by Beeres et al. (2020). Another thing is that whilst Beeres et al. (2020) explicitly the longitudinal within-person variance from the lateral inter-person one, Lin et al. (2020) compute their results without such distinction. Consequently, they come to the conclusion that problematic use of social media is significantly correlated with mental disorders.

I try to connect those two papers to my concept of collective intelligence, and with the use of artificial intelligence. We have an intelligent structure, i.e. humans hanging around together. How do we know we are collectively intelligent? Well, we can make many alternative versions of us being together, each version being like one-mutation neighbour to others, and we can learn new ways of doing things by choosing the best fitting version among those alternatives. On the top of that, we can do the whole stunt whilst staying acceptably cohesive as society. Among many alternative versions of us being together there is a subset, grouping different manners of using social media. Social media are based on artificial intelligence. Each platform runs an algorithm which adapts the content you see to your previously observed online behaviour: the number of times you click on an add, the number of times you share and repost somebody else’s posts, the number of times you publish your own content etc. At the bottom line, the AI in action here adapts so as you max out on the time spent on the platform, and on the clicks you make whilst hanging around there.

The papers I have just quoted suggest that artificial intelligence at work in social media is somehow accommodative of people with mental disorders. This is truly interesting, because the great majority of social institutions we have had so far, i.e. since however we started as intelligent hominids, has been actually the opposite. One of the main ways to detect serious mental problems in a person consists in observing their social relations. If they have even a mild issue with mental health, they are bound to have something seriously off either with their emotional bonds to the immediate social environment (family and friends, mostly) or with their social role in the broader environment (work, school etc.).   I made an educational video out of that quick review of literature, and I placed it on You Tube as: Behavioural modelling and content marketing #3 Social media and mental health

[1] Beeres, D. T., Andersson, F., Vossen, H. G., & Galanti, M. R. (2020). Social media and mental health among early adolescents in Sweden: a longitudinal study with 2-year follow-up (KUPOL Study). Journal of Adolescent Health,

[2] Goodman, A., Goodman, R. (2009) Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire as a Dimensional Measure of Child Mental Health, Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Volume 48, Issue 4,

2009, Pages 400-403, ISSN 0890-8567,

[3] Lin, C. Y., Broström, A., Griffiths, M. D., & Pakpour, A. H. (2020). Investigating mediated effects of fear of COVID-19 and COVID-19 misunderstanding in the association between problematic social media use, psychological distress, and insomnia. Internet interventions, 21, 100345,

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