Almost every teen has heard their parents tell them to “get off their phone,” but nowadays, social media use is rising for all ages. It is no secret we spend a lot of time on our devices, with an average daily usage of over three hours. Many have expressed concerns about the long-term consequences of social media usage. For example, a commonly cited issue is being distracted during conversations, especially for teens. People fear that social media reliance could lead to more problematic issues like reduced self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and privacy concerns.
Undoubtedly, people who are resistant to change have been horrified by the advent of social media, but there are many positive consequences to new technology. Social media has allowed us to easily maintain long-distance relationships, and it has encouraged young people to become more politically active. Before the rise of social media, it was challenging to contact childhood friends and family members. Today, most people are a Facebook message, a Facetime call, or a tweet away. Similarly, social media has birthed political movements that have led to some form of societal change.
Yet, when I saw Jeff Orlowski’s The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I thought it was an unfortunate confirmation of a modern-day 1984. The documentary suggested that the profit model of prominent social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok involved addicting us to their product and collaterally causing lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Common wisdom suggests this is entirely true, but we must resist jumping to conclusions without complete evidence.
A narrative review published early this year notes that many studies that attempt to show a link between social media use and these issues are “of particularly low quality,” and there are many that show results that are “still unclear.” The review also mentions that social media can increase “authentic self-presentation and social connectedness while decreasing loneliness.” However, it is essential to highlight that social media affects people in different ways; other environmental factors that likely contribute to the American mental health epidemic like climate change, economic inequality, political instability, and now COVID-19 muddle the certainty of results. Also, Europe does not have the same rise in anxiety as does the United States, and social media is just as prevalent in European society.
This is not to say that social media is immune to being attributed with psychological problems. Especially now, with so much free time on our hands, logging hours online can seem easy. What’s called “doomscrolling,” or incessantly scrolling through bad news online, can cause depressive symptoms.
Comparing oneself to others on social media can also lead to depressive symptoms, a 2014 study explains. On TikTok, Instagram, and almost all other social media, posts users are shown are determined by previous engagement with similar posts. And because we are evolutionarily designed to enjoy looking at pretty faces and pretty things, we naturally see many beautiful people on social media. Thus, it becomes easy to forget they are not representative of the real world, which warps our perception of ourselves and others around us. Interestingly, comparing ourselves to others on social media in either direction (to those we perceive as prettier and those we perceive as not as appealing as ourselves) can cause the same depressive symptoms.
Many also worry about privacy and cybersecurity regarding social media. Most recently, Trump’s effort to ban TikTok in the United States due to concerns over what data the partly state-owned Chinese TikTok parent company, ByteDance, has on Americans has been on the news. Another well-known example was during the 2016 presidential election, when the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, who claimed to have up to 5 thousand data points on every American voter, to help get him elected. These issues are beyond the scope of this article, but if you want to further educate yourself about what data social media companies have on its users along with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, I recommend watching the 2019 Netflix documentary, The Great Hack, which follows professor David Carrol as he delved deep into this topic.
On the other side of things, social media has certainly revolutionized communication in the modern world. We are now able to stay in touch with others and interact with the latest worldwide events and trends in a way never before possible. We are in a much more interconnected world, and to show this here’s a fact to blow your mind: every day, over 100 billion messages are shared on Facebook alone. This makes it easy to stay connected with family and friends who are not physically close, which is of paramount importance during the coronavirus pandemic.
Social media also fosters political engagement. On the voter’s side, a study published in 2012 shows that seeing a message that tells users to get out to vote leads to a measurable increase in voter turnout. For the 2010 midterm election, almost all 61 million American Facebook users who signed in on election day received a message telling them to vote next to pictures of their Facebook friends who said they had already voted. Researchers determined this message caused an increase of 360,000 votes. If this study was performed for the upcoming presidential election, the impact would be larger because a much bigger share of Americans use social media now than ten years ago.
Also, the majority of Americans have been “civically active” on social media in the past year, according to a Pew Research study, and a third of Americans are in a social media group that “shares an interest in an issue or cause.” A large majority believes social media is important for getting elected officials to pay attention to issues. A slightly smaller majority believes social media highlights issues that normally wouldn’t get much attention. This has been the catalyst for much recent change. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement has grown massively thanks to trends on social media, most recently after the death of George Floyd. “Today, you can whip out your smartphone and record pretty much any act of injustice,” Charlotte Macht, an intern for The Commoner, writes in her article, Can a Meme Save Society? The Role of Social Media in Social Movements. She continues, “add a caption and some hashtags, and boom, suddenly the whole world can witness what you just saw.” However, a downside to political involvement with social media is that over 70% of Americanas believe that it “distract[s] people from issues that are truly important,” and that “make[s] people think they are making a difference when they really aren’t.”
All in all, social media has certainly made a difference in our world, for better and for worse. It is easy to fear or embrace it because it brings such a relatively new and dramatic change to society. Yet, we had seen similar situations before when computers, radios, and television transformed our culture. Radio and computers are ingrained in our lives, and social media could become a staple of society. Since it is new, “more research will have to focus on tracing the effects of technologies over more extensive periods of time,” so we can better understand the effects social media has on people. For now, it is important to remember that what one sees on social media is not necessarily a reflection of reality. We should all pay attention to how our use affects us individually since no one better looks out for us than ourselves. Set limits, and make sure you are using it healthily to enjoy its benefits.
Evan Fleischer is an intern at The Commoner who just graduated high school in Massachusetts and is taking a gap year. He will enter into the class of 2025 at Tufts University in the fall of 2021 and major in chemical engineering. He is passionate about science, mathematics, and tennis, and he loves to learn.