Social is maturing. I don’t just mean age; it’s not that your grandma is the first feed you see on Facebook. I mean that our understanding of social media (and relatedly video games, which I’ll talk about next week), is changing. A couple of years ago, I think that no one would have anticipated social media as anything but growing like an infection. I get the feeling that the culture around social media might be maturing a little bit. For example, people have realized that you can actually be spending too much time on it habitually, but also that it’s a useful tool for more than just 13 year old girls.
Like any other piece of technology, the learning curve can be steep for society and it takes a while for people to realize that it has both pros AND cons, it’s not singularly one or the other, sometimes wrapped up in the same package. Your ability to communicate more simply and automatically with the people in your life is fantastic, but when that feeling of connectivity is actually pulling from a false sense of community that doesn’t actually exist, that’s bad. Talking to your cousin from Buffalo can be wonderful, but when you're passively scrolling the lives of others without actually getting out, it's a problem.
One of the biggest problems with social media, is undoubtedly that it has a negative effect on developing brains. This is especially problematic since social media targets, and began with, people 13-25. Young people use social media more than any other age range, as seen in this survey which shows that people 18-29 use social media more than any other age group across platforms. In this separate study conducted by the Pew institute we see that more than 60% of American adults use Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram at least once a day.
And as someone who grew up with social media, i would say, anecdotally of course, that it decreases my attention span and makes me more likely to bounce between multiple tasks and projects, rather than focusing on one and trying to improve it. It’s also addictive chemically.
It is shown that social media, when delivering alerts, triggers the brain to release dopamine, this gives you a little burst of artificial happiness. Simon Sinek has a great talk, you can find it here, on the subject if you’d like to hear him speak about it and happiness. (I highly encourage this, he’s one of the best speakers I’ve ever heard.) By pushing this button for this tiny molecule of happiness, we are trained, almost unconsciously. Get a text message back, get a notification, get that little ding in our pockets, tiny little burst of happiness. And we want that, badly. Feeling down? Just scattergun a bunch of messages to people--friends, acquaintances, your Facebook Grandma--- improve your odds of getting one back, not because you want to actually communicate with anyone, but because you want that little shot of dopamine. This is especially harmer to developing minds because undeveloped brains cannot handle the massive quantities of dopamine that their brain is being flooded with.
Now social media addiction, and the ill effects of overuse are primarily in younger people, with specific upticks in depression and suicidal thoughts among individuals who use social media more frequently. From the Association for Psychological Science: 33 percent of teenagers spend more than 2 hours on social media per day. The effects are even more severe when you realize that kids are developing tendencies over years that they will probably carry with them for the rest of their lives. In older people as well social media use is increasing. In the same Pew study I referenced earlier, we see that social media use is rising year over year across every age demographic, although greater increases at older ages with younger people being the earliest adopters of the medium.
Of course there’s an upside: connectivity, communication, etc. What social media does is combine different tools in one place, rather than doing anything individually new. It gives you personal email, news, and info about your friends, without having to interact. Just as much as it “connects” us, it disconnects us. When you can passively absorb the facts of people’s lives, you relax your ability and desire to form meaningful relationships with other people. You can’t just dip in and dip out with a FB message and form meaningful connections. This holds true for not just teenagers though, especially with video games as opposed to social media.
I was surprised to learn how dominant the middle-aged woman demographic is for mobile apps. Most of the money spent on handheld games, isn’t a 10 year old boy, but a 40 year old woman. Now, while Candy Crush is accessible through Facebook, they are not the same thing at all, but it’s not a large leap to look at how much time people spend on their phones for various purposes, and suppose that when people hop on to play a game of candy crush, they’re also checking facebook and instagram. How often have i seen what appears to be someone’s aunt on the subway scrolling through facebook hitting that like button? Every day, several times a day.
Just as important as the quantity in which we use social media, is the quality of the content on social media is being consumed. The frightening studies and investigations of Russian Influence on the 2016 election, the abundance of fake news articles and studies that are regularly circulated. It seems like it would be a simple task to make sure that what you’re spreading is from a credible source and not utter insanity, but reality is stranger than fiction as they say. Social media spambots on twitter, elaborate pro-Trump pranks to be circulated via “news” articles, and ad space bought by Russian Companies totalling over 100,000 dollars, all parts of social media that were exploited to sway the elections of the United States. Between the investigation of the Trump Campaign’s ties to Russian Hackers, the awareness that’s been generated by investigative reporting, and the surge of attempts by companies like twitter and facebook to control fake users on their sites.
With all of this going on, social media seems more than just teenagers and tweets doesn’t it? Many people have only caught up in the past couple of years, including governmental body, that the internet isn’t just some weird thing the kids are all doing. Once you involve money, get people talking to each other, and give unfettered access to information with no screen, it’s no wonder that there are real stakes to how we interact and regulate social media. We’re feeling the bite that can be brought to bear from social media, and while our understanding may be maturing, we need to move faster to bring social media under control.
The rising age of social media users, it’s incorporation into the political world, the documented and proven studies around social media addiction, and the resources that are being increased to deal with them, as well as the scrutiny that social media has received over its ability to allow outside sources to influence our political process with Russian Spam-bots. All reasons that I see for why our understanding and our engagement with social media is maturing. The fact that I can google social media addiction and come back with a plethora of help lines and resources says something about how seriously we’ve begun to take these things. And a good thing too with all the ways that social media is altering how we behave, what we know, and how we communicate.