October 18, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 191—Social media's harmful effects, and understanding precipitation extremes

In the wake of recent revelations about harmful effects of Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms, Indiana University Professor of Informatics Johan Bollen says he’s not surprised. In fact, he says, there is quite a bit of research that indicates a possible association between social media products and higher levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm not just among teenage girls, but in the population at large. Social media platforms are engineered to create and sustain our engagement for as long as possible, he says. The platforms accomplish this, he says, by using algorithms that condition us to continuously look for reinforcement. As users of social media, Bollen says, we’re rewarded for engaging with the platform by things such as receiving likes for a post, which in turn has the effect of sustaining our engagement. Humans are a social species, Bollen says, and there is no question that social media platforms provide us with social connections and relationships. But it’s crucial to weigh the positives against the negatives, he says. For example, some of Bollen’s recent research studied Twitter for markers of the kind of language associated with depression and anxiety. In real life, cognitive distortions--rigid, exaggerated or overly negative patterns of thinking—are associated with some serious mental health issues, Bollen says. And when he and his colleagues looked for prevalence of these markers in language on Twitter, they found very high levels. As a society, Bollen says, we need to come to terms with the potential influence of social media platforms on public health. With literally billons of people around the planet on these platforms, he says, even slight effects on our well being could have enormous impact.

In other news, recent extreme storms such as Hurricane Ida cause widespread damage and deaths, mainly due to inland flooding. But scientific understanding of the impacts and potential trends of such resulting flood hazards is limited, says Justin Maxwell, a professor of geography at IU Bloomington. In a new study, Maxwell and colleagues studied 319 years of tree-ring data from longleaf pine trees in North and South Carolina to expand the data record of seasonal tropical cyclone precipitation extremes. Their research showed an increase of 2 to 4 millimeters per decade for the wettest tropical cyclones -- an increase of 2.5 to 5 inches over the 319 years—due to tropical cyclones moving slower. An additional 2.5 to 5 inches for today's wettest storms makes them much more hazardous, Maxwell says, especially in coastal cities that have a lot of impervious surfaces that leave nowhere for water to go. Understanding increasing precipitation extremes caused by tropical cyclones moving slower and producing more rainfall could be a great benefit for communities that must plan and prepare for high amounts of rainfall produced by these types of storms, Maxwell says. Knowing that hurricanes are getting wetter as they move through the U.S could help cities plan for evacuation orders and appropriate levees to handle flood waters.