Last month, Facebook’s former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, spoke out against the social media company and expressed his guilt for his previous work with the company. Palihapitiya argued that social media platforms, especially Facebook, discourage civil discourse, cooperation and assist in spreading false information on a global scale.
His words, which included the claim that Facebook is “ripping apart the social fabric of how society works” bring up the question parents and grandparents of Millennials have long had strong opinions about: Is social media a good or a bad thing?
Given the widespread, negative psychological impacts of social media, as well as its detrimental impact on civil discourse and knowledge, I’d say Mr. Palihapitiya has a point.
However, since social media has become such an essential tool in almost all of our lives, it isn’t going away any time soon. Therefore, I think the best social media companies—and society in general—can hope to do is to use social media responsibly and take steps to address the ways social media negatively impacts our lives.
First, the negative psychological impacts of social media, especially among young people, are pervasive and ever-growing. For example, according to McAfee’s 2014 Teens and the Screen study: Exploring Online Privacy, Social Networking and Cyberbullying, 87 percent of youths have witnessed cyberbullying, compared to 27 percent from the previous year.
And according to findings from Michele Hamm, a researcher in pediatrics at the University of Alberta, there are “consistent associations between exposure to cyberbullying and increased likelihood of depression,” as reported by Live Science in 2015.
Furthermore, social media, Facebook Live in particular, has been used to broadcast, in real-time, acts of disturbing violence. According to Fortune, there have been at least 50 acts of violence live-streamed on Facebook since December 2015. The article says these acts have included shootings, murders, child abuse and even torture.
And for some social media users, it isn’t just cyberbullying that causes them to feel depressed.
According to a recent study by San Diego State University psychology professor, Jean Twenge, teenagers who spend more time on their smartphones tended to be unhappier than their peers who engaged in face-to-face interactions.
Twenge found the happiest teenagers spent less than an hour a day on their devices while any time over an hour spent on them resulted in increased rates of unhappiness. This gap in happiness is largely due to teenagers seeing other people posting updates that show them appearing to live happier, more exciting lives than themselves and therefore they feel their life, by comparison, is of a lesser quality.
Another point to consider is the effect of social media on the political process and how it keeps users informed.
For example, according to Kalev Leetaru, a senior fellow at at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, social media has amplified the effects of echo chambers or “filter bubbles” which have been present in civil discourse long before Facebook or Twitter were created.
People living in these filter bubbles will tend to follow, share and read posts and articles which affirm their existing beliefs. Since they are attuned to information that confirms their own beliefs, Leetaru says they are all the more susceptible to believing news that may not be true.
As a case in point, he provides the example of the run-up to the 2016 presidential election and how filter bubbles prevented much of the U.S. electorate, especially those in favor of Clinton, from even considering Trump could win.
Even in the aftermath of the election results, Leetaru said both sides, due to filter bubbles, had their own interpretations of what had happened. The end result of these filter bubbles is a society less informed about important issues since people refuse to consider opposing viewpoints.
While social media use has led to and also exacerbated these serious problems, it has also led to positive developments.
For example, social media use played an essential role in spreading information about the Arab Springs uprisings to the rest of the world. Social media, especially Twitter, has also lent itself as an innovative tool for professional journalists, especially when reporting on breaking news stories such as Captain Sully’s famous Hudson River landing and also the death of Osama bin-Laden.
Lastly, and most obviously, social media networks have allowed friends, families and co-workers to stay connected over long distances and remain an active part of each other’s lives.
So what’s the answer? Recently, Facebook has acknowledged both the psychological and civic downsides of its platform and announced some changes that will hopefully address them.
In an article posted to Facebook’s “Newsroom,” David Ginsberg and Moira Burke explain the company is taking steps to both reduce the amount of sensational, “fake news” content that appears in users’ timelines and also, “provide more opportunities for meaningful interactions” where users actively engage with their friends instead of passively consume content that appears on their timelines.
The company also is doing more to detect and prevent users who may be suicidal by developing support options for users who post about suicide and connecting them to mental health resources.
Will these measures work to make Facebook a less toxic social media platform? Perhaps. Will it fundamentally transform social media, as a whole, into a force for good in the world? Probably not.
In the end, it’s entirely up to us how we choose to use social media. Since everybody has their own unique outlook on the world, on current issues and events and also their own unique personality, social media will forever be a place where both the positive and negative will manifest.
Finally a PSA:
-Your worth is not determined based on how many glamorous posts you have on your Facebook, Twitter or Instagram feeds.
-Remember that real life happens apart from your social media feeds.
-The best connections we make are with real people, in person.
-Use social media wisely. Make it part of your life, not your whole life.