It’s no secret that social media is changing nearly every aspect of our society. It’s created a seismic shift not only in how we communicate but also in how we behave, which is having some disastrous effects.
A Creators Syndicate editorial in Thursday’s edition of The Era noted that social media is making us depressed, anxious and even suicidal.
Many academic studies have reached that same conclusion. These studies show that for some people, the more time they spend on social, the greater chance they’ll be depressed. The reason is obvious. People tend to portray their best selves on social. They post beautiful pictures of themselves, their significant other and their children. They post about their latest vacation, their promotion, their weight loss, their new house.
That means when we scroll through our news feed, we see all of this positive content and tend to think other people’s lives are perfect. (I’ve never seen anyone post about being reprimanded by a supervisor, gaining weight or fighting with a spouse.) Then, when we look internally, we see our own failings and foibles, which causes us to become depressed and anxious.
Social has also made it easier than ever to harass and bully each other. A 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found that roughly four in 10 Americans have reported being harassed online, ranging from offensive name-calling to sexual harassment.
That aberrant behavior on social is causing some people to take their own lives. A study last August from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that from 2007 to 2015, the suicide rate doubled for teenage girls and increased by 30 percent for boys. While the CDC did not identify any one reason for these staggering figures, it’s likely that cyberbulling is one.
Something must be done to stop this social tsunami from coursing through our society and creating havoc in its wake. However, I take issue with the editorial writer’s remedy: “In the end, though, it’s up to the social media business to make its products more humane and less exploitive.”
That’s akin to asking Krispy Kreme to stop making their doughnuts irresistible so we don’t eat our way through a box.
We will never make any progress if we place the responsibility at the feet of the social networks because the people who created these tools don’t benefit if we spend less time on their sites.
In an article in the December issue of Inc. magazine, Sean Parker, founding member of Facebook, admitted that Facebook was intentionally designed to make it irresistible, to make us stay on the site longer.
As we scroll through our newsfeeds, we all look for and hope to get likes and shares and comments because each one gives our brains a hit of dopamine, the reward chemical. We continue to scroll, post, tweet, gram and snap in the hopes of getting another jolt, another social high.
It’s the same reason we eat those Krispy Kreme doughnuts, a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream or a slab of cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. That sweet rush of sugar triggers our brain to produce huge levels of dopamine.
Our quest for that social high keeps us on the site longer and increases our chance of clicking on ads and seeing and reacting to boosted and sponsored posts, which ultimately generates more money for the social networks.
How much money? A lot. For the third quarter of 2017, Facebook reported revenues topping $10.3 billion. During that same quarter, Twitter reported $590 million in revenue. It’s unrealistic to expect the social networks to do anything that would adversely affect that bottom line.
So, what can we do? We need to take control.
In that same Inc. article, former Facebook Vice President Chamath Palihapitiya said he recognizes the danger of spending too much time on social and pursuing that social high. He suggested we all take a step back, take a break from social. “If you feed the beast, that beast will destroy you. If you push back on it, we have a chance to control it.”
Palihapitiya is right. The responsibility is ours and ours alone.
We need to limit our time on social. Yes, we humans are creatures who seek out and need connections. However, as those of us who lived a long time without social know, there are other ways to make connections that don’t involve a computer or smartphone.
We can start by walking away from the screens and talking to someone face to face.
(Cercone, a former Era city editor, is the executive director of communications and marketing at Pitt-Bradford where she teaches Social Media Communication.)