Social media: friend or frenemy?

I use social media daily: searching, liking, chatting and even buying. I’m far from a conscientious objector. While I benefit from social media, I’m still on the fence about whether I see it as a good or a bad influence. Is it a great way to connect with like-minded individuals or is it a dark hole of confirmation bias? The answer is likely a bit of both.

My main concern with social media platforms is that they are designed to only show you content they think you will like. That’s how the algorithms work. They track what you’re doing and try to predict what you’ll want to do or see next. They do this because your clicks are valuable. Your views, likes, shares, and comments are the incentive they need to get advertisers to invest with them.

The trouble with seeing only the things we like is it can create a very narrow view of the world. This article isn’t designed to answer once and for all whether social media is good or evil. These are complex questions which means there are no simple answers. Rather, it’s an exploration of what we know so far, what we’ve seen with similar technologies before, and three tips for minimising what I see as the dark side.

The good side of social media

There are two sides to most things; it’s no different with social media. On the one hand, there is the ability to connect with communities around the world. To inspire, educate, uplift and empower.

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This ability to connect is one of the things I love most about working in digital marketing. You can use these platforms to reach people who need your products and services. You can solve people’s problems. But there is no sense of good without evil, no yin without yang. Even social media has a dark side.

The dark side of social media

For me, the dark side of social media encompasses mental health triggers, addictions and the risks of confirmation bias.

Explaining confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency to prefer or seek out information that agrees with your existing beliefs and values. It’s been an area of research since the 1960s, which means it’s hardly new. Confirmation bias is a natural shortcut your brain takes to avoid being overwhelmed. It’s your brain’s way of bypassing the difficult work of interpreting new information and instead relying on information that is closer to your existing beliefs (1).

It may be a natural shortcut for our brain, but used too often it can be dangerous. The deeper we go into confirmation bias, the less likely we are to accept or be open to differing ideas. A potential risk of social media is how the platforms are designed to serve up your favourite ideas. The better the algorithms become at understanding your preferences, the less likely you are to be exposed to differing views. The more you rely on social media as your source of information, the narrower your views may become.

If you’re interested in learning more about the darker sides to social media, try these Netflix documentaries:

  • The Social Dilemma
  • The Great Hack

Social media, mental health + addiction

A social media addiction is classified as a behavioural addiction. It is categorised as a compulsive or excessive need to use social media which is interfering with your daily life. Adverse side effects of this addiction may include low self-esteem, anxiety or depression and physical symptoms like poor sleep (2).

But, even without an addiction, many are recognising mental health issues stemming from social media use. Social media influencer Zoe Sugg has publicly spoken about her struggles with social media. In 2020, she joined a campaign called Digital Detox Day. The campaign was designed to bring awareness to social media’s effects on mental health and to encourage people to take a whole day away from the platforms. In the lead up to the event, a series of videos were released around social media and cyber-bullying, anxiety and body shame.

Campaigns such as this are a step in the right direction, but real change may require enforceable regulations.

It’s not the first time tech has gone too far (and it won’t be the last)

Social media is far from the first time in history we’ve taken our new tech too far. I doubt it will be the last either. We seem to have a pattern of going all in on a new idea until we realise how much it can hurt. As an example, here’s how the introduction of microwave ovens changed our eating habits.

Microwaves were first seen in Australia in the 1970s and 80s. People loved that they saved on energy bills and were a fast way to cook a meal. To help sell the new tech, manufacturers released a range of cooking classes and microwave cookbooks (3). People were hooked.

This short video explains some lifestyle changes in the 1980s. It’s from a docuseries called Back in Time for Dinner. It follows a family through an experiment; each week they eat, work and live in a different decade of the past. Watch it on ABC iView.

Frozen, pre-prepared meals were an ideal partner to microwave cooking. They could be ready to eat in a matter of minutes and were relatively affordable. At the same time as microwave use grew, so too did the obesity problem. That’s not to say microwaves caused it – they were but one factor in a wide range. But, they may have contributed. It seems this new tech was giving us the idea that fast food was convenient food. Whether it was good for you was a different issue.

Obesity is a global problem we’re still finding ways to reverse. In fact, social media may actually be helping here as a haven for healthy recipes. What we may realise from this example is how A) tech can contribute to underlying issues and B) recognising we have a problem is the first step in improving.

This is what it means to take tech too far. To adopt it and become obsessed with it to the point where it contributes to poor health. It wasn’t until we recognised we had a healthy eating issue that we began changing the ways we viewed food and nutrition. Here are a few examples:

Through public service campaigns, diets and regulation; we are continually changing how we view nutrition. It hasn’t been a smooth journey; fad diets can be controversial and regulation is often criticised for being weak. But, it’s better than doing nothing. We can use the same methods to improve our relationship with social media.

3 ways to minimise the negative effects

We’ve spent 30+ years changing our relationship with food and nutrition, and we’re still going. Even if we started today, we’re a long way from rising above the dark side of social media. So, what can you do now? Here’s 3 ideas to minimise the negative side effects from social media.

1. Turn off notifications

Notifications were designed to have you hooked. Social media platforms are constantly thinking up new ways to push you into feeling like you need to log in. But you don’t have to listen.

I turned off almost all social media notifications about 2 years ago. I never turned them back on. I still allow notifications for direct messages and I have a badge to show me how much is waiting in the app. Without the constant reminders that something is happening in social media, I’ve cut down my reliance on it.

If you can’t bear to part with your notifications, try bringing in ‘Do Not Disturb’ hours to your day or week. Set yourself a time limit where you won’t use the apps. Each time you succeed, try making the ‘Do Not Disturb’ periods longer. If you do cave, don’t be too hard on yourself. Even a short time away can help you to curb the habit and reconnect with yourself.

2. Decide how you’ll use your influence

As mentioned before, your clicks are valuable. Your interactions are the precious data that these platforms need to stay alive. You may be one in a million, but when millions (or billions) of people are interacting; tides can change. Before you vote with your clicks, consider if this is an idea or opinion that you want to see in the world. For example, I tend to avoid click-bait headlines around female body image – such as celebrity weight loss and no-makeup selfies. I believe it’s time that appearance (whether female, male or gender neutral) was not a headline.

Decide what your values are (the kind of world you’d like to see) and enforce those values on the content you consume. This might seem contradictory to the issue raised earlier about confirmation bias. The trick is to be aware of the fact your view is narrow. Enforce your values, but never be afraid to reconsider those values. If you find content you disagree with – ask yourself why. You might find you still don’t agree, but it might also be an opportunity to re-evaluate your beliefs.

3. Use it to educate yourself

A diverse view of the world is the one true view of reality. There are hundreds of cultures, languages and perspectives out there. You can’t be expected to be up to date on them all, but you can do your best to be educated. Try following accounts with views that are different to your own.

When you do encounter new ideas; push yourself to think critically. Look for both sides to an argument, fact check ideas using multiple sources and talk to your network. Ask what others around you think. Social media can be very powerful when used as a psychologically safe environment for debate.

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Where to from here?

I’m hardly going to say down with social media. I probably wouldn’t have much of a job if it weren’t for the tools we use every day. I also wouldn’t be connected to a wide range of causes I care about, brands that inspire me or products and services that I need. The angel’s halo shines bright for social media.

But we can’t ignore the darker side. The side that left unchecked can leave us anxious, stressed, taken captive by our tech. The side that calls for more at all times – more views, more engagement, more money; when there may not be much more to give. By acknowledging (and potentially regulating) the bad, we can march forward toward more good.

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