Why online privacy is good for our mental health

October 11, 2018

Not long ago, I finished reading a book by Johann Hari called Lost Connections, which I absolutely recommend to anyone who feels even slightly depressed or anxious. It is a very, very good book that urges people to reconnect with normal human relationships, meaningful values, and doing something that matters — trust me, that can really help overcome depression. It’s not a universal antidote to distress, but it can at least give you an understanding of the nebulous reasons you’re feeling unhappy.

What struck me while I was reading the book is that some of the things Hari pointed out about our broken society and ways to fix it are also related to our privacy. Actually, it’s quite surprising, yet it really seems that taking care of your online privacy can have a positive impact on your mental state. In this rather personal post I would like to describe two aspects of privacy that are quite directly related to feeling morally well. I would like to note that I’m speaking on my personal behalf, and the official position of the company might be different.

Social networks: The disconnection from other people

It’s a paradox of the modern world: Social networks allow us to talk with our friends and relatives all over the globe at any time, yet never in human history have we felt so lonely and disconnected from others.

That disconnect is something pointed out not only by Hari, but also by a lot of different, independent sources, including our own survey. Social networks cannot serve as a replacement for normal, real-life communication with people you value. Even in terms of chemicals, communicating over social networks is different from talking with a flesh-and-blood human face to face; in the latter case, a hormone called oxytocin is released, and it (together with serotonin and dopamine) is responsible for us feeling happy.

We’ve talked a lot about privacy and security in social networks on our blog, suggesting changing the settings for Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Most of these changes aim to prevent strangers from seeing information they shouldn’t. We’ve also talked about the habit of oversharing and its negative consequences. But the more I dug into social media privacy settings and the more I read about data leaking from social networks (be it a Cambridge Analytica scandal, or, say, an Ashley Madison leak), the more I thought about the idea of not having social media accounts at all — or at least minimizing my time on social networks.

I’m not a person who jumps to do something as soon as I hear about it, so I’ve been considering this idea a lot, and I’ve come to the following conclusion: I won’t delete my Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social accounts. They are all good for something. Facebook serves me birthday reminders, and it’s helped me communicate with former journalist colleagues or acquaintances when I needed information from them for my posts here. LinkedIn is probably good for my career (at least that’s what people say; I haven’t had a chance to try it for myself, although it helped me find career opportunities for my wife). Twitter is a social network used by a lot of information security researchers, and it is a good source of news in our industry.

For me, the solution is to set social networks’ privacy settings to be as strict as possible, minimize my time on them, and not consider them a way to communicate with friends and relatives. And I deleted Instagram and Swarm, which were constantly making me feel miserable and envious of other people. After applying these changes and spending significantly less time scrolling through the feeds, I’ve found myself feeling less miserable and having more time to actually see my friends, which makes me feel even better.

It’s a personal solution that worked for me and might not be right for you, but I want you to at least ask yourself: Do you really need all those accounts in all those social networks, and do you really need to spend that much time checking them? Minimizing communication and sharing on social networks is a way to increase your online privacy and to feel better. Deleting your account might work even better — if you are ready for that radical step.

Advertising: The disconnection from meaningful values

It is believed that we are exposed to an average of more than 4,000 ads per day. We don’t consciously notice all of them, but there they are: billboards on the street, banners on websites, text ads on search engines, promoted posts on social networks, and so on. Not to mention that many people wear clothes advertising brands. The modern world wants us all to buy things, and hundreds of thousands of very talented marketers and salespeople work daily to make us believe that buying this or that brand new thing will make us happier, or better, or help us achieve our dreams.

Perhaps there is some truth to that — for example, buying a bike might make you happier because of the joy that going for a ride can bring. But buying a new, expensive, and super-mega-feature-packed bike instead of an older, plainer one won’t make you significantly happier; the rides in the park will be almost the same. A fancy new bike might raise your standing among people on the street, but it doesn’t matter to the people who really care about you.

Yet ads urge us to buy more and more fancy new stuff. No matter what kind of car you have, there’s always a car that packs more horsepower and provides more features. And personalized ads will urge you to take a look at it, perhaps try it so that you’ll really want to have it. Personalized ads that we see in search engines and social networks are the heaviest hitters, because they are tailored specifically for us. But the things they promote are not what we really want, they are what our society wants us to want. These are called extrinsic values; our real values are called intrinsic.

Our intrinsic values are usually not about having, but about doing (say, learning to play a musical instrument) or caring. They’re about doing meaningful things for the people we care about or for society in general. Sometimes, they’re about becoming something.

Pursuing our intrinsic values — the ideas that really matter to us — is one of the things that makes us happy, makes us want to live our life. But intrinsic values are often hidden, overshadowed by extrinsic ones because no one advertises our intrinsic values to us — our quest is to dig into ourselves and find them. Extrinsic values are advertised on every site or corner. And on the Internet the ads are, once again, tailored specifically to hook us.

What information is used to make online ads relevant? It is our posts on social media, our likes, our geographical positioning data, the things we’ve searched. It is what we write in our Gmail and what we talk about on Facebook Messenger. It is what is now called big data.

How do we avoid targeted ads? By not giving too much information to those who serve them and by not allowing them to track us. Hello again, privacy.

Well, I’m not talking about dropping Gmail for good — it’s too convenient. I use it and plan on continuing to use it. But again, this post is about starting to think about which services that you use and that collect your data for advertising purposes are really necessary, and which of them can be easily replaced with more privacy-oriented ones.

I’ve described my approach to social media; now, it’s up to you to develop yours. Minimizing time on social media means you’ll see fewer ads and give away less personal data that can be used to target you. But there are search engines and, say, news websites that also want to serve you customized ads. You can avoid that by using software that prevents tracking and services that are pro-privacy. For example, I recently switched from using Google as a search engine to privacy-oriented Web-search platform DuckDuckGo. It still serves ads, because that’s how it earns money, but it does not track you and does not have a gigantic advertising network such as Google Ads, which means that other sites won’t be serving you ads based on your searches.

The results

Having more time to talk in person with people who matter and fewer ads to clutter my brain did a good job for me and, perhaps, it might do a good job for you. For me, it resulted in finding out that there are people around me who have the same problems as I, and solving them together — or at least sharing them — made those problems seem significantly smaller and more bearable.

Perhaps, I can say that after reading Hari’s book and making some tweaks in my life I’m a happier person than I used to be, and the process aligned really nicely with my idea of increasing my privacy online. And as a part of reconnecting with meaningful values, I want to create something that has at least a chance to make other people’s lives better. That’s why I’m writing this post, and I really hope it can help at least some of you.