“Three billion people, around 40% of the world’s population, use online social media – and we’re spending an average of two hours every day sharing, liking, tweeting and updating on these platforms” (Brown). Closer to home, 69% of Americans use social networking sites as of 2018, compared to 26% in 2008 (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). The fundamental interactions in social networking are interpersonal and based on user-generated content (Paquette). With this level of usage, broad-based adoption and personalized communication, social media is undoubtedly having an enormous impact on our lives.
Early philosophical concerns around the impact of online social networking have been based on the idea that technology tends to “constrain or impoverish the human experience of reality in specific ways” (Vallor). Philosophers like Borgmann introduced the concept of hyperreality, which describes the state of being where social networks “may subvert or displace organic social realities by allowing people to offer one another stylized versions of themselves for amorous or convivial entertainment” (Vallor). The danger is that it can leave us feeling defeated and wasteful when we are forced to return from the unreal perfection and glamour of our virtual presence – to the imperfect and less-comforting reality of our physical lives. Other psychologists have referred to this separation between our virtual and physical social selves to be the cause of the “online disinhibition effect, in which anonymity, invisibility, a lack of authority and not communicating in real time strip away the mores society spent millennia building” (Stein). A lot can go wrong when social media users are literally unshackled from the roles, responsibilities and etiquettes that bind us together as a civilized society.
The rise of Internet trolls is one example that supports this dystopian view. Trolls are people who relish their online freedom to threaten other social media users (Stein). A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found that “70% of 18-to-24-year-olds who use the Internet had experienced harassment, while 26% of women that age reported they’d been stalked online” (Stein). While it may be easy for us to stereotype the approximately 5% of social media users who identified themselves as trolls as aberrational and antithetical people (Stein), the reality is more complex. Trolls can be mostly normal people who are out there to have the laughs or “lulz” in their terminology (Stein).
Apart from trolls, another negative behavioral effect of online disinhibition is cyberbullying. Over 52% of students have reported being a victim of cyberbullying (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Another study conducted in 2016 found a threefold risk of depression and anxiety among people who used social media platforms the most (Brown). The underlying reasons included having a distorted view of other people’s lives, cyberbullying, and feeling like social media was a waste of time (Brown). What the latter research suggests is that a lot of the ills of social media usage are also self-inflicted, as our dependence on this virtual medium to fulfill our social selves continues to grow.
In fact, a study at Nottingham Trent University in the UK found that “social media addiction is a mental health problem that may require professional treatment” (Brown). The study found that excessive use of social media was linked to relationship problems, lower participation in the real world and also poor academic achievement in students. The people who were most vulnerable included those “dependent on alcohol, the highly extroverted, and those who use social media to compensate for fewer ties in real life” (Brown). Another study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2017 concluded that users who spent the most amount of time on social media were “twice as likely to report experiencing social isolation, which can include a lack of a sense of social belonging, engagement with others and fulfilling relationships” (Brown).
The effect of social isolation has a deleterious effect on teens who are yet to develop the cognitive and coping responses required to manage their social selves effectively. A 2016 study found that “overuse of social media as an adolescent may decrease success in relationships later in life as online communication hinders the development of conflict management skills and awareness of interpersonal cues” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Middle school children who were cyber-bullied were found to be almost twice as likely to attempt suicide (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). If one were to take a negative view of the ill-effects of social media usage, especially on the young and vulnerable, there is enough cause and evidence to put major restrictions on it. However, while social media use poses a distinct danger to mental well-being for both adults and teens, it also has a transformative level of positive influence on society at large.
Social media has changed the world of news and communication as we know it for the better. Creating and sharing news is now not limited to a state or corporate organization but has been truly democratized. Billions of users now have access to social media through their computers, phone or other smart devices. So much so, that “78.5% of traditional media reporters polled used social media apps to check for breaking news” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Social media also has the advantage of being able to spread information faster than any other media. Individual people who are in the midst of an unfolding event can now report it earlier than traditional media outlets. Examples of this include the Japanese earthquake and nuclear disaster in 2011, the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, the Paris attacks in France 2015 and many others (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). It is now common to see a live television reporter citing social media posts and videos as a means of delivering the latest news.
The open and instantaneous sharing of information is a foundational shift in how the general population consumes news and has the force to transform society and government. Social media gives social movements a quick, cost-free method to organize, spread information, and mobilize people regardless of their class or age group. The Egyptian uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring in 2011, was organized largely via social media, (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). More recently, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, mobilized a nationwide gun control movement through social media following a tragic shooting at their school that resulted in many fatalities. The students used social media to organize protests across the country that drew over one million people and motivated thousands of new voters to register (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Going beyond current news, social media is helping disseminate information around myriads of issues, some with life-saving impact. For example, social media helps educate drivers around the ills of texting and driving, and law enforcement to apprehend criminals (Agarwal).
While instant and easily disseminated information is powerful, it does suffer from reduced integrity and fact-checking, giving rise to the term “fake news”. “64% of people who use Twitter for news say that they have encountered something they later discovered wasn’t true” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Moreover, a study published in Science found that lies spread six times faster than the truth on Twitter because ‘fake news’ is retweeted more often than true news. Even if false information is corrected, the number of people who see or share the corrected version via social media is much lower than the number who originally shared it (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). The term “caveat emptor” as it relates to information, will need to be infused with new meaning in the age of social media.
Looking beyond the impacts of social media at a political or structural level, it also offers tremendous benefits for individual users. In an age of rapidly changing technology and culture, social media allows people to stay grounded, improve their personal relationships and make new friends. Research data shows that “93% of adults on Facebook use it to connect with family members, 91% use it to connect with current friends, and 87% use it to connect with friends from the past” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Not just adults, but 72% of teens connect with friends through social media and 57% make new friends that have helped them through a tough time (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Social media is also a good influencer, helping positive actions ripple out across social circles. For example, “when people were exposed to reports of good deeds on Facebook, they were 10% more likely to report doing good deeds that day” (Stein). Social media also help students perform better at school with 59% of students reporting that they use social media to discuss educational topics and 50% using them to talk about school assignments (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?).
On the economic front, social media is helping businesses around the world. “Almost 90% of big companies using social media have reported at least one measurable business benefit” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Social media is, therefore, helping reach more consumers across larger areas, faster, and at a fraction of the current promotion and advertisement costs whether it be for marketing or research purposes (Agarwal). Overall, social media is good for the economy creating thousands of jobs and has evolved into a major new industry. A study from the McKinsey Global Institute projected that the “communication and collaboration from social media added between $900 billion and $1.3 trillion to the economy through added productivity and improved customer service” (Are Social Networking Sites Good for Our Society?). Such expansive economic benefits make social media an almost invaluable part of our personal, social and business lives.
In conclusion, the use and abuse of social media is a study of contrasts. Just like any powerful invention of the past, it can transform societies, improve our relationships with family members and friends, enhance our quality of life and grow our economy. On the flip side, it can destroy mental well-being, expose the darkness of the human mind more easily and spread misinformation to promote corporate or political greed. A good analogy is the invention of fire with its ability to cook our food, shape our metals, and fuel our rockets versus its destructive power of burning down entire forests or communities. In the end, as human beings, we must take responsibility for what we create and harness its full power for the greater good. Social media is, therefore, a phenomenon that is much needed and a positive force that will be a part of our evolving humanity. To harness it in the best way, we may need new government or workplace regulations, new course curriculums at the elementary and middle school levels and more perseverance and dedication from parents in teaching morals to their children. In the end, we must learn to play with this fire as our ancestors learned to play with theirs.