As a veteran user of social media for more than 15 years (Yes, I had a MySpace page!), I often questioned the benefits of time spent on there. Is it worth it? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Here’s my thoughts on it.
I think you first have to break it down into its constituent parts: 1. Social media (the web platforms), and 2. the people we encounter on social media.
The first obvious thing to note is that the web platforms are only successful because people like being social, so the platforms themselves don’t do that much. They are merely facilitating something we would do anyway. But obviously a difficulty arises when the platforms’ business model demands maximizing user engagement. So, rather than impeding us (as with most market instruments), it seeks to give us as much as possible of what we like to make sure we stay.
This is where they become sort of proxy dopamine dealers; picking up on our every preference, finding stuff we’re most likely to react to then serving it up to us. It’s hardly surprising then that people become addicted over time, and I think that this addiction is a far bigger problem than we realise. Most people tacitly believe that many hours of screen time a day is perfectly acceptable, so there’s very few calling this behaviour out as harmful. Yet study after study have revealed direct links between social media over-use and mental disorders.
The second thing is the people we meet. Obviously it’s wonderful to meet people who think and talk like us. It makes the world feel smaller, warmer and less isolated. I’ve made many good friendships with people who I’ve yet to meet – and maybe will never meet. Then every once in a while we might clash with someone we don’t know and engage in some bitter argument or name-calling. In my experience though, these encounters seem to be happening less and less, which I put down to internet use and etiquette maturing generally. Overall I think it’s safe to say that the interpersonal benefits far outweigh the risks.
But there is another problem that I’m not sure gets enough consideration, and that is the inevitable diluting effect on friendships that having so many ‘friends’ brings. We are pretty much optimised to have about 10 – 20 people closely involved in our lives. When that number suddenly jumps to hundreds, it can only mean that we value those relationships less. We have finite energy and we’re much less likely to put a concerted effort into a slightly bumpy relationship when we can just as easily forget about that person and move on.
How many times have you been out enjoying a meal or coffee with a friend only to be interrupted by a social media phone notification and taking a few seconds to check it out or even respond while your real life friend sits in waiting? Isn’t there some erroneous belief at play that the person at the other end of the phone is somehow more important than the person sitting in front of you? I have often instinctively felt this ‘notification reflex’ then had to correct myself. Even if they are more important to you, it’s still a real life example of dilution.
Undoubtedly this must have the effect of making relationships (of all kinds) more fleeting and less reliable – in real life and online. Bizarrely this infers that intensive socialising with many people is likely to leave us feeling more isolated in the long run. Not just because we aren’t tending enough to our relationships, but neither are our friends!
So, in answer to the question at hand, I believe the benefits of social media definitely do outweigh the risks, but, because social media companies are market-driven to keep us glued, it’s important for us to learn how to use it responsibly, so we can derive the most benefit without being consumed by it. And it’s perhaps even more important for us to not try to be too available for too many people. We will enjoy stronger relationships more when we have less of them. I say choose quality over quantity. Have some close friends, then acquaintence-zone the others!
For my own part, I tend to use social media more like a store now. I use it daily but don’t browse too much. I just go when I want something and leave. Sorry, algorithm!