“One thing that I always wonder about is the effect of social media on our daily lives. Hurtful or helpful?”

This is a great and complex question. What makes it so complex is that social media has profoundly impacted everyone’s life, whether they have a social media platform or not, it’s invaded everything. 81% of US Americans have a social media account. That is an incredible amount of people that are impacted on a daily basis. Another complex issue when discussing “social media” is actually defining it- what exactly is “social media?” Does social media include television, newspaper, magazines? Does it also include blogs, websites, billboards? What about emails, tweets, and text messages?

The availability of information, partnered with the rapid pace that information moves and the anonymity has brought both positive and negative change. As with every generation, there is always the fear that new technology or cultural change will bring about the catastrophic end to society as we know it. It happened when Aristotle explained that the earth was round (though the ancient Greeks already knew this!); when Elvis first shook his pelvis for hoards of screaming women; when the microwave heated our food in a matter of minutes; and when Grandma started using Facebook.  Each beckoning of new technology invited an abundance of praise and terror alike.

So let’s explore some different elements of this question:

Confidence and connection:

  • Many people struggle with feeling confident in social situations- add a higher than average level of anxiety and being social feels like a death march. Social media sites have provided people with the opportunity to be social without the overt sting of rejection. We can delete a message, turn off the site, or even post anonymously which can add some level of safety to the social world. I have worked with clients that struggle with crippling social anxiety; utilizing social media platforms can be an awesome starting intervention as they can practice socialization skills and coping skills that can be transferred to in-vivo social experiences.
  • Social media has also afforded people to connect to an incredible array of people and alternative experiences. You can keep in touch with friends and family around the world that otherwise would have been lost relationships. I use the phrase “keep in touch” because social media is as close to physical contact as we can get without actually sitting next to someone. Yes, writing a letter has its merits in that you took the time and forethought to write it. But, to see someone in pictures, chat with them through video, or get to peruse the elements of their life is far more dynamic than ink on paper.
  • The disconnection of moment-to-moment experience also awards people with the ease of taking more risks. People can be more vulnerable online in what they share or post because they don’t have to visually watch or react to the response from others. Also, the consumers of the information can engage with it without having to produce a measured reaction. You can write something scary and not have to dissect someone’s reaction to it and someone can read it and not have to pretend they feel a certain way. For example, I lost my aunt recently and took to Facebook to share the hurt and pain I experienced losing her. I didn’t have to look into the sad eyes of each person reading my post, I didn’t have to keep reexperiencing it every time I told someone. The person reading my posts didn’t have to look me in the eye and try to figure out what to say, in fact they didn’t have to say anything at all. Just knowing people within my world knew I was hurting was enough. People making the effort to comment or “react” was the icing on the cake.
  • The flip side of this is that the ease of social media or the anonymity of it has infused some people with an emboldened sense of unkindness or a decreased ability to engage in in-vivo experiences. Social media has made people feel like their voice is important (which it is!) but further than that it has made people feel like its the MOST IMPORTANT voice there is out there. Furthermore, some people have become so accustomed to engaging in social connection with the barrier of the internet, that their abilities to engage in face to face interaction has eroded. I believe it has gone even further in that we now struggle to cope with the emotions of or with others- we don’t know how to take rejection because we can’t delete the physical person in front of you or manage the sadness they exude because we can’t just “react” and have it be all better.
  • Lastly, the ability to connect people from all walks of life to one another is incredible. The learning someone can do by reading posts from people who have different experiences, live in different places, or hold different beliefs is mind-alteringly powerful. We can humanize people and experience in a whole new way by connecting to other humans. Furthermore, look at the social movements that work to help people “not feel so alone.” The entire idea of #metoo was to help women (and men) know that they are within a community of people who get it, feel it, and live it too.
  • Carrie Kerpen of Forbes Magazine writes an interesting blog about how social media has created one’s personal brand and improved self-awareness. 

Creating “reality”

  • Social media has this tricky way of spinning the way we see ourselves and see others. I often remind my clients no one puts their worst life on Facebook. Every post, picture, tweet, snap, or whatever is done with some semblance of purpose. In this, we have not only constructed unattainable false realities but we have introduced overthinking into EVERYTHING. How do I want people to view me? How will this be interpreted? Does this make me look cool or desperate? Why aren’t people “liking” what I posted? Is it because they are out there having their best lives while I’m refreshing my feed? Answer-no, they are just too busy refreshing theirs too… 
  • An even bigger construction of the “reality” conflict is how celebrities showcase their bodies, lives, relationships, and experiences. The power of the celebrity is a whole different topic for another long-winded post, but it is undeniable that what a celebrity is saying or doing or even wearing has a monstrous impact on what us “common folk” consider normal or even desirable. When we are constantly bombarded with narratives that don’t match our own we start to second guess ourselves. I can’t tell you how many clients tell me “but they look so happy on Instagram” or “ya but Pampers commercials always show the mothers well rested and totally in love with their baby- sometimes I just want to run away and nap for a week, what’s wrong with me?” How are we supposed to combat these images and messages? How are we supposed to know that our experience is the REAL one, not the contrived picture that is presented through the media platforms. I found myself complaining today about how the breasts on “Game of Thrones” all seem so perfect and lamented “that’s just not reality!” While it may be reality for some, it is unfair to believe the concepts or images are a reality for ALL or that you’re broken if you don’t fit into them. In this essence too, real life has become incredibly boring. If you don’t have something interesting to post on social media, then are you really living? Real life seems like a crappy consolation prize when the rest of the world is posting about their extravagant adventures every 10 seconds; guess I’ll just snapchat my pajama bottoms and make a funny joke about the Netflix binge watching I’m currently doing? #restingbetweenadventures #pleaselikemypajamas
  • Not surprisingly, depression and internet addiction increase as the use of the inter-webs and social media increase too. Negative effects of social media can be seen with less engagement outside of the online world, decrease in meeting daily demands such as at school or work, and increase in relationship challenges. However, as true with anything- all things in moderation. Oh- and how realistic you’re being about your internet use. Depression research shows that envy or jealousy of what you see on social media is what breeds depression, not necessarily the use itself. Again, no one puts their worst life on Facebook.

Sharing of information

  • The speed and storage capacity of the media world has afforded millennials (and Grandma) with the cutting edge of information. We can now pick up our phones and learn about almost anything. In reality, we do not want for basic information anymore. This lack of need to answer basic questions has pushed us to ask even more profound and complex questions. Even asking the question “does social media help or hurt” is a modern marvel of pushing the limits of communication- Benjamin Franklin would be utterly in awe of how a tweet works. However, the infectious spread of information and ease with which we access it comes with its own slew of problems. Anyone can publish something on the internet and call it fact or at least make someone believe it’s fact (except this blog, everything in here is true- so just believe it ok?). Social media and the internet as a whole has both increased our capacity for learning and decreased our ownership over the learning process. That being said, no ALL people succumb to these traps ALL the time. It’s simply not that black and white, as truly nothing is.
  • The impact of social media on the human experience has been one of the greatest treasures. Social advocacy, awareness, and cultural movement have become so much broader and more profound thanks to social media. The fact that #metoo (and the hundreds of hashtags prior that raised awareness to sexual violence) has created a snowball effect of people sharing their stories and holding society members accountable to changing the rhetoric of sexual violence pays some tribute to the power of social media. I read an article today that factory workers for Zara have been putting notes in the pockets of garments they created to raise awareness that they have been unpaid for their work. The incredible thing is that this is happening in Istanbul! Without the power of social media, I would never have been alerted to this issue and maybe (most likely) Zara wouldn’t be making an effort to fix it. The power of social media at the helm of raising social consciousness is a gift our generations have never been afforded before. Just like the narrator says in Spider-Man: “with great power comes great responsibility.” Another fabulous quote I use all the time- your biggest strengths are also your biggest weaknesses.

At the end of the day (and blog) the answer to the question is both and neither. Social media has both hurt and helped society as well as done neither at the same time. Social media is a microcosm of the world’s already present challenges, injustices, and insecurities; if society had gone in a different direction of communication, the challenges would exist there too. Furthermore, unless John McClane shows up bloodied, gorgeous as ever, and ranting about a “Fire Sale,” the internet is here to stay so we might as work on improving the tools we have now rather than spend time lamenting the “old ways” (which is relative because someone older than the “old ways” thought that what was then the “new ways” was going to ruin society too).

Leave a Reply