It’s difficult to imagine a world without social media. After all, it’s where we spend on average five years and four months of our lifetime. There are 3.397 billion active social media users on this planet. On average, people have 5.54 social media accounts. The average daily time spent on social media per person is 2 hours a day – and could be up to 9 hours for teenagers.
Social media has become more than just a place where we connect. It’s where we share photos, where we get our “news,” where we go to be “validated,” and where we go to get our voices heard. It’s also where we’re told what to buy, and even what to believe.
But its impact on our wellbeing is just starting to surface. An entire generation – Generation Z, or iGen, as it’s sometimes called – is growing up under the influence of social media. They’re spending significantly less time at in-person social activities than previous generations. Studies have shown that the more time teens spend on social media, the higher their risk of being unhappy, developing depressive symptoms and anxiety, as well as loneliness.
The impact of social media on mental health is not restricted to teenagers. 210 million people are estimated to suffer from social media and internet addiction. It’s a destructive behavior that has been likened to drug use and demonstrated to cause impaired decision-making.
How can we make social media the connector it was meant to be without all the harmful side-effects?
The anatomy of words. And the effects of social media on our language
There was a time when being social meant physically interacting with human beings, whether it was playing sports, getting together with friends or having dinner with your family.
Today, it seems that face-to-face interaction is being traded for device interaction. Instead of genuine, real-life connections, we clamber for likes, claps, upvotes, shares, follows, and comments.
The word friend is now used more as a verb than a noun – friending someone is something that you do, often without thinking, with the push of a button.
And then there’s the word like. It has become a measure of worth – in business as well as social circles. Now, a like is something we count, something that increases our value. Just as we friend with a single click, we often like without much thought.
The effects of social media on our behavior – the good and the bad
It would be unfair to talk about social media without acknowledging its positive effects.
With the help of social media, we’ve been able to raise awareness about important topics that were seldom talked about before. Social media has been instrumental in movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo, among others, and in helping to mobilize rescue efforts and community support for disaster relief. It has allowed us to stay in touch with friends and relatives, introduced new marketing channels for businesses, aided us in finding jobs, and enhanced our social experience in many other ways.
Where did we go wrong?
Social media began as a fast and easy way to connect with others, and as it evolved, it became a vehicle for our voices, a way to get our message across, a platform to promote products and services, etc. Pretty quickly though, things started to go wrong.
As social media started gathering data on us, they built psychological profiles on what we like and dislike. The advertisers learned that outrage got people’s attention and made them share. But more importantly, they know what outrages each of us individually and as groups. Trolls, bots and algorithms were created to feed the outrage machine.
The result is social media has negatively impacted our ability to deeply connect with other people in real life. Many of us lack the social intelligence and social skills that enable us to communicate our thoughts and feelings, and as a result, our relationships suffer.
We’ve changed in endless ways, but now it’s time to reassert control over our minds and our online wellbeing.
The Cambridge Analytica Scandal was just the beginning of a growing public discontent that we now call ‘techlash’ (a term coined by the Economist in 2017). A quiet revolution has begun in an effort to hold BigTech players like Facebook accountable for the negative effects that have become difficult to overlook.
We’ve been told by ex-leaders and supporters of big tech companies that continuing to use certain “free” services is dangerous – not only because of countless data breaches and the threat to your psychological wellbeing but also for the health of our democratic societies.
The good news is, a movement is underway. People are demanding alternative solutions, and legislation like GDPR and CCPA are meant to give us control over our identities online. Privacy is a human right – in our digital world, as well as our physical one.
By reasserting our rights online, just maybe, we can get back to a world where social media is once again a vehicle for meaningful connection and leave the toxicity behind.