Social Media: Friend or Foe?

Social media is global phenomenon that most of us use everyday. Despite our obsession with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we still do not fully understand the many ways these platforms affects us.

glenn-carstens-peters-203007.jpg

Social media has the power to influence our thoughts, habits, desires and goals. It has enabled us to reconnect with long lost friends, family living abroad and share entertaining content with the world. However, if is not used responsibly and safely it has the potential to harm our lives, relationships and health. 

In 2017, there were 2.46 billion social media users across the world. Studies have shown that this is projected to rise to 3.02 billion by 2021. The UK currently has 39 million social media users, around 58% of the population. Other surveys indicate that at least 67% of adults in the UK have a Facebook account. There is arguably no more powerful common experience in the world than social media. We live in a time where connectivity between people has never been more accessible. However, it is important to take time to reconsider how we navigate successfully through the potential perils of social media.

What are the Dangers?

Recent studies have indicated a strong correlation between excessive social media use and increased vulnerability to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, narcissism and self-consciousness. Several public interest groups are lobbying heavily for pop up “heavy usage” warnings to appear if a respective social media user is spending unhealthy amounts of time on a particular app. Recent analysis has also shown that people who reported using multiple social platforms (seven to eleven) had more than three times the risk of depression and anxiety than people who used the least amount (zero to two platforms).

Many young people are at risk of internalising unrealistic expectations of themselves, relationships, sexuality and success by constant exposure to social media. Often, high profile users of social media project an unattainable image of success which does not often acknowledge truthfully many of the insecurities, problems and anxieties they face in reality. Cara Delevingne, a popular model, actress and socialite has spoken publicly about her long standing battles with body-image, anxiety, depression and eating disorders. She complained that these struggles are often not proportionally represented on many of the social media platforms which in turn can foster in unrealistic expectation of life for many young people. Many social media users present a life unblemished by worry, problems and fear which gives people a false image of reality and an unhealthy desire for an elusive life of luxury and happiness.

Many of these studies indicate that social media can garner a pathological fear of missing out or “FOMO”. Increased exposure to these fears can lead to heightened paranoia, anxiety and low self-esteem. Young people are particularly predisposed to these fears but this is not exclusive to young people.

Moreover, attaining “likes” or “retweets” on our social media profiles has been shown to give us a dopamine kick in our brains. This can easily give rise to an addictive pattern of behaviour. Most of us want to be liked and seen; and social media can give us our narcissistic fix on demand.

Likewise, online anonymity can provide a fertile breeding ground for nefarious groups to indoctrinate, recruit and disseminate destructive messages and ideologies. Online activity can provide groups with a confirmation bias as people find people with similar radical views. These are known as echo chambers. These are potentially very dangerous as groups affirm one another in their respective destructive ideologies often without any outside perspective or challenge.

What Can I Do to Protect Myself?

Carving out specific times of the day to check your social media can be a good way to limit excessive use. For example, do not take your phone to bed; keep it in a specific room in the house and perhaps check in on the hour in that particular room for no more time than necessary. If you are following a high status social media user, remind yourself that they are human, like you. They have struggles that you cannot see and their life is not perfect. This can further protect us from unrealistic or unfounded expectations of reality. 

Renewing our commitment to cultivating deep and meaningful relationship offline is one of the best antidotes to excessive social media use. Using your time to invest in your friends, family, colleagues and spouse is the best way to enhance connection between people. Prioritise devoting your energies offline and you will have something unique and powerful to bring online should you choose to.

Recent studies have highlighted how prayer and faithful religious adherence is one of the most powerful bulwarks against poor mental health. A Christians, we should be confident that cultivating an intimate relationship with God is actually the most powerful safeguard against the dangers of social media. This is good news and worth sharing with the world. 

If social media is used responsibly and safely it can be a powerful tool for connection, raising awareness, sharing art and updating loved ones with our life events. However, if misused, it can create and perpetuate loneliness and anxiety. We owe it to ourselves to keep social media in its appropriate place in our lives and disarm it from affecting our lives adversely.