An introduction to the pros and cons of social media
We have become cyborgs.
Although we are not quite at the point of whole brain interfaces and human-AI integration, we just cannot do without those little cuboid devices we call mobile phones.
Here are just a few UK nomophobia stats from YouGov (and they’re only going to get worse):
- Two thirds of smartphone users (67%) rarely or never leave home without it, rising to eight in ten (79%) 18 to 24 year olds.
- When moving from room to room in the house, half (49%) take their phone with them, rising to eight in ten (78%) 18 to 24 year olds, seven in ten (68%) 25 to 34 year olds and six in ten (57%) of those aged from 35 to 44.
- 60% of 18 to 24 year olds and 25 to 34 year olds say they’d be anxious about not being able to communicate with family and friends without their phone, compared to only a third (34%) of those aged 55 and over.
- Three quarters (72%) of 18 to 24 year olds would worry about the fact that family and friends couldn’t reach them, compared to almost half (47%) of those aged 55 and above.
- Two thirds of 18 to 24 year olds (67%) would be nervous because they wouldn’t know whether people were trying to get hold of them, compared to a third (35%) of those aged 55 and over.
- One in nine smartphone users (11%) would be nervous about being ‘disconnected from my online identity’ if they went without their phones for a day. This rises to one in five (19%) among 18 to 24 year olds and one in six (16%) 25 to 34 year olds.
- When asked whether they’d feel ‘relieved’ to be free from their phones for a day, people were slightly more likely to disagree than agree (34% versus 29%).
Social media is just a small part of what these devices offer, but it is a significant ingredient in our (potentially) poisonous broth of lifestyle habits.
For the purpose of this article, social media is ‘a website or application that enables users to create and share content, communicate or participate in social networking.’
You know the type of social media platforms I mean – Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Pinterest, WhatsApp, LinkedIn, Snapchat, TikTok, Tumblr, Vimeo, Google+, etc.
I must also express that these are my opinions. Some people may argue that some advantages are disadvantages and some disadvantages are advantages.
To voice your opinion, please use the comments box at the bottom of the article, unless this a social media channel that is going to negatively affect your, or someone else’s, life, then don’t use it at all.
Social media is neither good nor bad, it just is
One of the most powerful mental models I have developed over the past year is the ability to dissociate meaning from things.
Seeing things as just existing (neither good nor bad) has helped me to deal with loneliness, grief and a breakup.
I try to do the same with social media.
The realty of the situation is that social media per se isn’t bad, it’s just a platform (that you can choose to avoid).
It’s the way you, or other people, use the platform that can be considered bad, especially under the definition below…
Defining social media as “good” or “bad”
The definition of BAD for this article is ‘anything that causes pain, suffering, a wasted life or an early death.’
The definition of GOOD for this article is ‘anything that leads to enjoyment, happiness, improves your life or adds to your wheel of wellbeing.
People often argue that some uses of social media are good or bad when, in reality, they’re neither.
For example, I don’t consider looking at your phone in the morning as necessarily bad, but I do think lying in bed for hours scrolling hopelessly through social media, feeling depressed about life and jealous of Instagram posts is.
I won’t spend any more time talking about neutral uses of social media, I’ll focus on the “good” and the “bad” based on the definitions above.
It is then up to you to determine whether you need to adjust your use of social media like I did…
My social media problem
I struggled with some of the negative effects of social media for at least a couple of months.
I became addicted to that dopamine hit whenever I saw a WhatsApp bubble appear in my notification panel – “ooooo someone wants me! Someone cares! I’m important!”
I also got anxious whenever someone read my message but didn’t respond – “they saw my message two hours ago! They’re online now! Why haven’t they responded!? Don’t they like me anymore!? Am I annoying!? Should I call them and give them a piece of my mind!?”
Luckily, I dropped my phone last week, which meant an insurance claim, a repair and no phone for 24 hours.
When I collected my newly repaired phone, I had 78 unread WhatsApp messages, two Facebook messages and a stack of social media notifications and updates.
It was clear that I had to make some significant changes from that day, and I did.
The changes I made and the positive impacts they had on my life have been explained throughout this article but if you want the short version, scroll down to the last section: ‘Is social media working for you?’
Why should you consider the advantages and disadvantages of social media?
Being without my phone for 24 hours made me analyse the pros and cons of social media so I could clarify its role in my life.
I then adjusted my daily routines to ensure I used social media as I wished and didn’t get caught falling into the online abyss.
If you take nothing else from this article, please take this:
SOCIAL MEDIA IS A TOOL
It should be used to augment your life, not take over it.
Use the tool for beneficial reasons, but do not let it absorb you into the inescapable chasm of addiction, anxiety and exhaustion, like it did to me.
In my experience, problems arise when social media becomes an addiction that forces you down avenues of negative consequences.
If you can control it’s use to benefit from some of the advantages below, whilst minimising the disadvantages, you’re on to a winner.
The benefits of social media:
Social media provides a wider audience access to resources that were simply inaccessible previously.
How things got built without YouTube I will never know!
Social media has facilitated the expansion of human knowledge from actions and noises (around 200,000 years ago), to language (around 50,000 years ago), to cave art (around 35,000 years ago), to tablet inscription and scroll writing (around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago), to book printing (around 1,000 years ago), to voice transmission (around 100 years ago), to worldwide interaction and instantaneous answers (now!).
The sort of knowledge available now is inconceivable compared to that of even our closest relatives.
Even if they were lucky enough to live close to a library, or knew someone with particular expertise, they still would only have had access to a miniscule portion of the resources that social media has made available to us.
The more access we have to knowledge and resources, the more we progress as individuals and as a species.
You don’t just get access to educational material from social media, you also get insights into thoughts, trends, fashions and events.
Without social media, I would never have been able to appreciate the insights of wise thinkers like Alan Watts and Eckhart Tolle in order to help me combat grief, loneliness and heartbreak.
Also, I would have missed out on contemplating Elon Musk’s crazy future of multi-planetary life and wizard hats.
Such insights make for great conversation with friends too, just be careful to distinguish between facts and opinion (discussed later).
3. Breadth of communication
Social media facilitates global communication and is particularly beneficial if you use it to connect, or reconnect, with family, friends or those with shared interests.
When it comes to communication, social media eradicates boarders and makes distance insignificant. You can contact almost anyone, anywhere, any time.
This is a real benefit for those who have long-distance relationships, alternative interests or are just lonely and want to connect with new people; however, it’s no replacement for human-to-human interaction – face-to-face, smile-to-smile, body-to-body connection – which we’ll get on to later.
4. Speed of communication
The speed at which social media allows for communication is extremely powerful for public health and safety and real-time decision making between individuals and teams.
Real-time notifications allow people to make informed decisions quickly. The recent coronavirus is a perfect example of this, although Elon may argue that it’s still too slow.
5. Spread of ideas
Unsurprisingly, wide, fast communication allows ideas like Elon Musk’s crazy future to spread much wider, quicker.
The benefit of this is that it inevitably leads to faster global progress (depending on how crazy the idea is).
Crowdsourcing on social media is a great example. It is now possible for people with common beliefs to contribute, connect and collaborate to achieve positive change.
6. Social equality
The improvement of communication and spread of ideas allows for a more open market.
People who had little opportunity in previous generations now have an almost open platform to showcase their skills, products and services to a desired audience.
With podcasting, self-publishing and video sharing, individuals can now create their own media channel which was previously restricted to the elite.
Professional networking sites like LinkedIn and Meetup also assist the connection of companies to personnel and vice versa.
As a result of social media, there is now less emphasis on where you’re from and who you know in order to be successful, making skills, passion and drive much more desirable traits.
With new technology comes new markets and new opportunities.
Ten to twenty years ago there was no such thing as a social media influencer, a social media marketer or a multimillion-dollar podcast host.
These interesting, creative markets have evolved and will continue to evolve.
As social media (and technology as a whole) develops, the opportunity for quality, enjoyable careers and overall wealth will continue to increase.
8. Social support
If used properly, social media provides a platform to tackle some of the most problematic issues in society including suicide, mental illness and addiction.
Communities, blogs, web applications, video chats and platforms where people connect with experts, can all help alleviate such issues.
Research suggests that it’s rare for people who die by suicide to post about it explicitly on social media, but it does happen, and signs of emotional distress can be spotted.
I know several people who have found legitimate emotional support after a sensitive social media post.
The U.S. military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are now starting to use social media to help prevent suicide.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have also produced a very useful social media safety toolkit for recognising and responding to emotional distress on social media, as well as providing many suicide prevention resources.
If you find yourself in a position where you’re concerned for someone’s health (including your own), use the social media safety toolkit and the resources below to make a difference to someone’s life…
- Support groups and contacts at the bottom of Understanding Mental Health
- Useful tips in Preventing Suicide: Some Do’s & Don’ts
- Helping those in need by Supporting A Friend Or Family Member With Mental Illness
There’s no doubt that social media is a great place to be entertained. You can literally find anything you’re interested in.
If you feel down and a stint of funny cat videos will cheer you up, fill your boots.
The disadvantages of Social media:
Social media sites are purposely made to be addictive.
The more people use a platform and the longer they spend on it, the more social media corporations can charge to advertising companies.
Attention and data are the key commodities here and social media corporations are willing to use psychological manipulation in order to gain more attention (for longer) and data.
As explained at the start of this article, the reason I took such drastic measures was because I became addicted to the social media game.
If you can’t help but pick up your phone every five minutes for no apparent reason, impacting your concentration, attention, relationships and social interactions, you have a problem.
For some reason, these issues are not taken as seriously as drug abuse, alcoholism or gambling; although, problems with attention, relationships and social interactions (amongst other complications listed below) are shared across them all.
When an addiction starts to impact the quality of your life, it’s time to make a change, and the first stage of tackling any addiction is admitting you have one.
As well as impacting on concentration and relationships, addiction also breeds anxiousness.
In the study mentioned at the start of this article, two thirds of 18 to 24 year olds (67%) claimed that they would actually feel nervous if they didn’t know whether people were trying contact them and (72%) would worry about the fact that family and friends couldn’t reach them.
This issue may not specifically be restricted to social media, but as mobile contact is mostly made through message apps, it’s pretty darn relevant!
If being away from your phone (and therefore social media) actually creates negative feelings, like nervousness, it cannot be good, just like not being able to go without a drink, a hit, a bet, a dummy or a comfort blanket.
Anxiety is not just restricted to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) can also develop whilst using social media.
As I mentioned earlier, I often used to feel anxious and upset if someone had read my WhatsApp message hours ago but didn’t respond, yet they were online.
I would run through all sorts of negative scenarios in my mind which achieved nothing but internal pain and suffering. It’s funny how those little blue ticks have such an impact on your psyche.
Evidence suggests that social media can intensify feelings of disconnect and increase the risk of the youngest in our society suffering from issues like anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, eating disorders and even suicide.
If around half of our youth feel inadequate, anxious or overwhelmed by social media, maybe it’s time to educate them (and ourselves) on making healthy social media choices.
3. Lack of concentration
I’ve touched on concentration within the “addiction” heading above.
Here are a few UK statistics from YouGov that may hit home:
- Smartphone users are significantly more likely to say they’d feel more focused on what they were doing (43% agree, 24% disagree) without their phone and that they’d pay more attention to what was going on around them (49% agree, 20% disagree).
- Young people are most likely to say they’d feel more focused (56% of 18 to 24 year olds vs 31% of those aged 55 and over) and pay more attention to what was going on (63% of 18 to 24 year olds, versus 45% of those aged 55 and over).
If individuals (especially young ones) lack concentration and attention:
- Their risk of having an accident increases,
- Their risk of being attacked or a victim of crime increases,
- Their productivity decreases,
- The quality of their face-to-face interactions (and therefore relationships) decreases,
- Their ability to build, complete or achieve anything decreases.
This was another significant factor in my decision to restrict my smartphone usage.
Although I could happily sit by myself during meditation, I used to constantly check my phone during a task, lowering my productivity and diminishing my ability to get stuff done.
If you can’t focus your full attention on taking inspired action, you restrict your ability to accomplish your dreams and serve the world.
Accomplish your dreams, serve the world or slide a “hey” into someone’s DM’s? Your choice.
This is a problem that I uncovered through personal experience.
Since giving up my phone after the 78 unread WhatsApp messages, two Facebook messages and a stack of social media notifications, I have felt a significant rise in energy throughout the day.
Just imagine how much mental processing must have gone into handling so many cognitive distractions throughout, what I would consider, a usual weekday, and this was without me even responding!
Mental energy is one of our ultimate commodities and I am not willing to trade it for trivial social messaging.
5. Memory loss
A combination of poor concentration, cognitive exhaustion and having a source of universal knowledge in our pockets, negatively affects our memory and quite frankly makes us lazy.
Again, this maybe a bigger issue than social media but it’s common now for people not to know simple things like phone numbers of family members, birthdays and who lives in your street – yes, people used to actually know their neighbours!
Research indicates that even when people can maintain sustained attention by avoiding the temptation to check their phones, the mere presence of such devices reduces available cognitive capacity, and these cognitive costs are highest for those with smartphone dependence (generally younger generations).
6. Wasting life
Another social media trap I found myself falling into was scrolling aimlessly through feeds with no intention, direction or purpose.
I was wasting time and ultimately my life.
I also feel saddened when I see people videoing a gig or an event for social media without immersing themselves in the experience. Just think of the emotion they are missing out on whilst they watch an intoxicating live performance through the confines of a pixelated screen.
Time and emotions are precious, and social media can easily drain away hours that you can’t get back. Make sure you realise when you’re falling down the rabbit hole and act immediately.
7. Physical problems and obesity
Addictive aimless scrolling through social media can lead to a distinct lack of physical activity, which in turn can lead to obesity and serious medical problems.
It’s also been found that consuming blue light from mobile devices several hours before bed negatively impacts sleep cycling, sleep quality and energy levels for several days after.
Not to mention the impact it has on your posture.
If you can’t bear to put your phone down to do natural things like move, sleep and stand tall, then there’s a problem.
8. Your offline relationships suffer
You no longer need to leave the house to have “relationships” with tens, hundreds or even thousands of people online.
Although we are more connected than ever, it appears that we are unknowingly damaging our in-person interactions because social media often:
- Drains our social energy,
- Takes up precious interaction time,
- Interrupts in-person interactions.
Dunbar’s number suggests that we only have the mental capacity to maintain stable social relationships with 150 people – that’s relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
Dunbar suggests that this limit “is set by the size of our brains” and “the time you invest in a relationship determines the strength of the relationship.”
So the more time and energy your spend collecting and responding to Facebook friends, the more diluted the quality of your offline relationships become.
Dunbar says that if you think you have more than 150 friends you are fooling yourself – “you can certainly sign up as many people as you like, but that doesn’t make them friends. All we are doing is signing up people that we would normally think of as acquaintances in the offline world.”
It’s great to connect, but don’t replace the time, energy and attention you spend on close offline relationships with online acquaintances.
Social media can provide an invisibility cloak to those who partake in cyberbullying.
M.J. Crockett (neuroscientist) told Healthline: “there is some evidence that people are more willing to punish others when interacting via a computer interface than they are when they interact face to face.”
Cyberbullying can be accidental because when communicating online, individuals don’t receive the natural feedback that they would from a face-to-face interaction – voice tone, body language, facial gestures, etc. therefore, it’s harder for people to tell how provoking certain comments are.
Cyberbullying can also be serious intentional acts. This is a societal problem. Social media does not bully people, it’s the people behind the screen that do.
This issue requires a serious investment from social media corporations, parents and society as a whole in policing and education.
- Students who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide (USA statistics from Hinduja & Patchin, 2018)
- Suicide ideation and attempts among adolescents have nearly doubled since 2008 (USA statistics from Plemmons et al., 2018), making suicide the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals 10-34 years of age (USA statistics from CDC, 2017)
It’s alarming that over half of adolescents and teens have been subject to cyberbullying in the US.
Quite often, this is because there are no consequences for the culprits (less than 1 in 5 cyber bullying incidents are reported to law enforcement).
We need to do more.
Social media is so crammed with false information, you don’t know what to believe.
Misinformation takes several forms including:
- Misinterpreted facts,
- False rumours, insults and pranks,
- Deliberate hoaxes, phishing and propaganda.
This again is not necessarily a social media problem, it’s a societal problem.
Social media is just a platform, it’s the people behind the screen that lie, cheat and steal.
Fake twitter accounts, fake millionaires, fake bodies, fake products, fake services, fake schemes, fake facts and fake news all contribute to making people feel bad about themselves or coax them into making misinformed decisions.
Social media also allows people to show an incomplete picture of reality, which again leads to feelings of inadequacy, anxiousness or overwhelm because “their life is terrible as compared to others’.”
If you want to use social media for collating information, I suggest you investigate each source you use and/or only follow those you can trust.
11. Social security
Social media can endanger social groups, religious groups, the military, journalists and activists.
Here are just a few examples from ProCon, The Guardian and The Newjurist:
- The US Army notes that checking in with location-based services on social media like Foursquare or Facebook could expose sensitive whereabouts and endanger military personnel and operations.
- In 2015 and 2016, a number of Bangladeshi bloggers who posted their thoughts about atheism on social media were killed by religious fundamentalists who opposed their postings.
- In 2011, the sophisticated use of social media was used to organise looting during the London riots.
- In 2019, the terrorist attack in Christchurch, resulting in 50 deaths of men, women and children was posted by the gunman on a live Facebook feed as followers around the world with the same extreme far-right views encouraged and cheered him on.
12. Lack of privacy
Social media corporations make money through advertising and data.
In order to package you up into a nice little profile to sell to potential advertisers, they must gather as much information about you as possible.
Whatever you upload to social media, be it your picture, address, job, hobbies, interests, sexual orientation, relationship status, etc. it’s all stored to create your profile as a potential customer.
Once in the hands of social media corporations, there’s no going back.
Regulations have been tightened around data protection recently but you only need to look into scandals like Cambridge Alanytica to see that if your data is out there, it’s accessible, and not everyone plays to the rules.
Whether you are happy with your personal information being accessible, and what sort of information is accessible, is entirely your call, just be informed that it could be used to manipulate your decisions.
Is social media working for you?
Social media itself is not “bad,” it is just a platform. You choose to operate on it.
A lot of the worst problems of social media are not problems with the platform, but human problems.
The information you share, the way you use it, the groups you interact with and the amount of time to spend stuck to the little rectangle screen is entirely up to you and they all contribute towards your overall wellness.
I have personally made the decision to not carry my smartphone between the hours of 9am and 6pm. Also, any activities I take part in (training, social gatherings, reading, writing, etc.) are smartphone free.
I now carry around an extremely basic mobile phone that only a few close people have the number to in case of emergencies.
It’s hard to quantify my reduction in social media usage but it must be from around several hours per day to half-an-hour per day. I feel happier, healthier, more energetic and much more productive.
And the world hasn’t stopped!
People now understand that, unless it’s urgent, they are unlikely to contact me during the day and the amount of trivial messages have slowly reduced to the point that I can deal with them quickly at the end of the day (mostly by phone call).
My human interaction is better, my relationships have improved, and I feel that restricting my social media usage has really benefitted my life.
In the future, I would like a family that understands how to use phones to work for us, not replace our fun, love and connections.
I don’t want to live through a pixelated screen, I want to experience reality to it’s fullest, how about you?
Would you be able to spend a whole day without social media?
Give it a try.
See how you feel.