I was an early adopter of social media, long before the term existed. In 1988, I wrote a journal article1 discussing the use of a computerized bulletin board system (BBS) to connect government agencies with their constituents. The pre-internet system I described used a then-high tech 1200 baud dial-up modem for connectivity.
Compuserve, mIRC, and MySpace have all occupied space in my life at one time or another2.
Current Social Media
I admit I have a love-hate relationship with current social media. Facebook allowed me to connect – or re-connect – with people I likely would not have otherwise. Instagram and Flickr are boons to my photography hobby. And Twitter, although I don’t embrace it as some friends do, still provides some contact with others.
On the other hand, social media – especially Facebook – can be exceedingly time consuming. I continually question whether the time I invest there produces the results I’d like.
Which begs a larger question. Is social media a benefit or a nightmare? Does it enhance our lives, or just add another dimension of frustration and doubt? Are there other risks to be concerned about?
Bringing Us Together
It is obvious that social media brings people together in ways unimaginable only twenty years ago. It puts us in touch with people we’ve lost contact with over the years.
A good example is my high school class. Our class was far from cohesive when we were in school, and as time went on, we seemed to drift even further apart. Then about 10 years ago, we started connecting again. We have our own class page on Facebook. And to my chagrin, I discovered that many of my classmates – with whom I had no contact for decades – lived within a few miles of me.
In addition to ‘meeting’ on Facebook, members of my class who live in the area where we went to school have a monthly lunch meeting. It is – or was before the COVID-19 crisis put an end to restaurant dining – a great time to socialize for a couple of hours. But it was born from social media connection.
I also live a long distance from the area where I spent most of my working life. Facebook, and to a lesser extent Twitter, helps me stay in touch with many of my former co-workers.
Social media can be good for our mental health. One of the biggest advantages to social media is that it expands and nurtures relationships. Improved communication and human interaction was a primary reason for the emergence of social media in the first place.
Social media can help people build relationships with those of similar likes and similar concerns. Just as with my example of my high school class, it can reinvigorate relationships – often forged by shared experiences – which have lapsed over time.
It can also vastly expand resources for mental health information – sharing experiences with those struggling with similar problems. Internet support groups, blogs, and discussion forums have greatly expanded support resources.
Online support for personal issues, whether physical such as diabetes or cancer, or psychological issues such as depression can be attractive to those who might not otherwise seek help.
The attraction derives from three factors of social media:
Anonymity: Many find it easier to share problems with ‘anonymous friends’ on the other side of a screen and keyboard. There is minimal risk of identification and ‘real-world’ interaction.
24/7 availability: There is always someone there, online. If a problem is keeping you awake at night, there’s always someone there is ‘talk’ to. With the advances in cell phone technology in accessing the internet, you don’t even have to be near a computer to reach out. And in the event of a crisis, social media can be life-saving. There are numerous instances of online support communities – or even an individual online ‘friend’ – being credited with saving someone from suicide or accidental drug overdose.
No Borders: The internet is universal. When you are awake at 3:00 AM, mulling a troubling issue as you sit in your bedroom in Chicago, someone in Tokyo is wide awake. Online support groups draw from all over the world, and someone is always available.
Close But Oh, So Far Away
Yet an advantage of social media – bringing us closer to people we’re far away from – is often countered by taking us farther from the people we’re close enough to talk to.
Every day, thousands of people sit scrolling and staring at their social media accounts while drinking coffee in their favorite cafe. Instead, they could be enjoying the food, taking in the atmosphere around them, and engaging with others in the restaurant. Yet they are often oblivious to even the presence of other people around them.
Every time we have a minute, we take out our phones and check social media – in restaurants, department stores, on the train or bus, in the airport, on the beach, in a park, by the pool. Our world is reduced to ‘content’ on a 15 square inch screen.
I’ve seen it – I’m sure you have, too. A couple sits at a table for two in a nice restaurant. In times past, they may have been gazing into each others’ eyes – maybe holding hands across the table. Too often today, they sit four feet apart across the table, only occasionally acknowledging each other as their eyes race across the small screen each holds in their hands. In the worst scenario, they’re texting each other.
And imagine a situation where a friend is celebrating a birthday. Fifteen years ago, you may have mailed a nice birthday card. Maybe you would even call your friend on the telephone. If you lived close enough, you might get together for lunch or a cup of coffee just to talk.
Today, you just open Facebook and write a couple of words on your friend’s wall. A great example of how social media kills the actual communication of real life, social media is actually making us unsocial.
The Other Side of Mental Health
Social media can also have detrimental effect on our mental health.
An August 2019 survey of 998 Generation Z – those born between 1996 and 2010 – discovered a total of 41% are made to feel anxious, sad, or depressed by platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. The survey, by Origin, Hill-Holliday’s in-house research arm, found 34% of Gen Z saying that they are permanently quitting social media. Another 64% reported taking a break.
But 77% of the same group reported that having social media accounts provide more benefits than drawbacks.
Twenty-two percent reported fear of missing out (FOMO) if they weren’t constantly connected through social media. Yet, 71% say that social media has a positive impact on friendships. Twenty-nine percent say that social media interactions hurt their self-esteem and make them feel insecure. But 61% said that social media had a positive impact on their confidence.
Validation of Our Worth
Social media invites us to compare ourselves with others. For people with self-esteem issues and insecurities, hearing about other people’s happiness and successes can deepen feelings of inferiority. In today’s world, self-worth too often revolves around the number of Facebook ‘friends’ or the number of ‘likes and shares’ our posts receive.
But we forget that social media posts don’t always present a true picture of the poster’s real life. It’s easier to fake happiness – and sadness – in social media posts.
While older users may not have the intensity of feelings from social media, this and similar surveys point out our love/hate relationship with social apps.
I’ve Got Plenty of Time
Social media can take up a large portion of the time given us each day. According to a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey, social media is now the third largest consumer of our average lifetime. Social media use consumes an average 6 years and 8 months of our lives. That is only slightly eclipsed by watching TV (8 years and 4 months). Not surprisingly, the largest single consumer of our time is sleeping, at 26 years and 5 months of the average lifespan of 72 years3.
Yet, time devoted to social media is increasing each year. Americans spent an average of 153 minutes (2 hours and 33 minutes) a day on social media in 2019. That’s a 70% jump from the average of 90 minutes per day in 2012.
Not surprisingly, Gen Z spends the most time on social media – 3 hours and one minute per day, according to Digital Information World. Daily use decreases with age, but those over 55 (my age group) still spend an average of one hour and 13 minutes a day on social apps.
All the News That’s Unfit to Print
A significant downside of social media is that it has become the de facto news source for large numbers of people. Facebook, especially, has become a haven for ‘fake news.’
Yellow journalism, stirring public sentiments with sensationalism and biased reporting, has been with us since the 1840s. But ‘news by meme’ has taken this concept to new heights. Sensational photos indicate wrongdoing by a political figure, yet may actually come from a different time or even a different part of the world than that portrayed.
COVID-19, political positions, social justice and defunding the police have all been recent topics of information and misinformation.
And this is not a localized phenomenon. People in other countries can have very adverse opinions of certain U.S. events, based solely on memes or out-of-context postings on Facebook4.
That is coupled with the rise of the ‘social influencer.’ The term broadly applies to those with a large presence on social media whose opinions impact purchasing decisions of their followers. But especially since 2016, mega-influencers such as entertainment celebrities have used their fame to attempt to influence political ideas.
And finally, but not insignificant, are the increasing number of amateur journalists. This includes anyone with a camera – almost everyone with a cell phone – who posts their take on events of the day on social media. This type of journalism can be highly beneficial in providing coverage of events deemed unworthy of coverage by established media outlets. But it can also suffer from a lack of journalistic standards of fairness and fact checking.
So the Conclusion Is …
Dr. David Buch, Chief Medical Officer of Carrier Clinic, a central New Jersey behavioral health center, puts it this way.
“As with any healthy relationship, use of social media should have its boundaries. Ultimately, whether social media is ‘good’ or ‘bad’/‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ for a person’s mental health and well-being is directly related to how they are used (or abused), by whom, and to some degree by who is passing judgment.
“Key to enjoying the benefits while avoiding the problems is to use these powerful tools sensibly, constructively, and in moderation. Like food, which we truly can’t live without, the right choices in the right amounts keep people healthy and satisfied, while poor choices and excess consumption can lead to significant, potentially life-threatening health conditions.”
Social media is here to stay. It’s up to each of us to use it wisely.
- Worley, R. Mike. “Electronic Bulletin Board Systems for Police Agencies.” Current Municipal Problems, vol. 14, no. 4, 1988, pp. 435-441.
- I was never a fan of America Online (AOL) but many people I know were
- World Health Organization estimate for 2020
- This is not solely a problem with Facebook, but the number of Facebook use dwarfs other social media where these types of posts can be found.