The panic around social media use today is like the panic around Grand Theft Auto in the noughties, video-nasties in the eighties and the development of the printing press back before people knew what penicillin was. Stupid and petty, silly and unfounded, peddled by the kind of people who can’t handle change. It would all be fine, I thought. We just needed to sit back with a box of chocolate biscuits, watch Netflix (The Good Place, obviously) and wait for this whole thing to blow over. Headlines like The Mail’s ‘social-media obsessed teens are so scared of real life some wont even answer the door’ would stop appearing, everyone would be fine and we could all go back to our phones in peace.
But then I started researching.
Social media might make you anxious. There’s probably a reason, after all, that 51% of the people who grew up with social media are embarrassed by mental health. There has to be a reason suicide rates are higher today than they have been for a decade. The mental health crisis didn’t develop in a vacuum. The housing crisis and austerity, soaring tuition fees and Nigel Farage looking like Kermit the Frog’s miserable middle son haven’t helped, but nothing defines our generation like the rise of social media. One study a few years ago found that the more you use Facebook, the less happy you’re likely to be and another found that, scrolling through the hours on social media is likely to lead to an increased sense of social isolation.
51% of the people who grew up with social media are embarrassed by mental health
Especially when you consider how long we spend on the internet. One bigger and more recent study conducted on 2,658 teens found that teens spend 9 hours every day staring at screens. Not all of that is social media. It’s supposed to be a comprehensive study; those nine hours aren’t just spent arguing with strangers on Twitter – they’re spent playing video games, listening to music, watching Netflix or Hulu and reading articles. Everything your average 18-year-old might do on a computer that doesn’t involve studying. Social media wasn’t the biggest part of that count (that goes, pretty predictably, to TV, music and movies), and most of the subjects claimed they were more or less happy, but social media played a big role. Most teens spent over a quarter of their time on some sort of social media site. That’s a lot of time per day. And, though they reported being happy, that’s hard to reconcile with the majority of the data that’s already out there. Not just because it tells a different story, but because it doesn’t tell it very well. This survey sacrifices the depth of its cuts for the breadth of its sociological strokes; the questions here are unhelpfully shallow. Rather than conduct a comprehensive study of students’ mental health, it asked them questions about their mental wellbeing. How happy they were at school, what they thought their relationship with their parents was like, and if they felt like they had enough friends. Not exactly deep. With that in mind, it’s hard not to face the truth, to recognise that social media has its dangers.
it’s hard not to face the truth, to recognise that social media has its dangers
And that feels strange, because I believe in social media. It’s big and corporate and demonstrably toxic in many ways, but there’s just so much promise here: I think social media has power. If you’ve ever followed an activist of colour, a trans spokesperson, or a feminist and felt like it’s expanded your worldview, then social media has done you good. More than anything else, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and whatever else the kids are into these days are monumental platforms for subaltern voices. They’re powerful mediums through which the people most in need of an audience can look for ways to create one. It’s good for literacy, too. The kids of the last ten years have snapchatted and Instagrammed and WhatsApped their time away, and they’re more than likely smarter for it. Kids who might never have written a word under their own power have sat and crafted millions of text messages, snap chats and tweets for their own sake. One 2010 study found that kids send 3,339 texts a month. And, seven years later, that number is only going to have increased. That’s an awful lot of time and an awful lot of energy dedicated to thinking about language, to using words and language and making themselves heard. Whatever you think about phones, that’s a powerful thing.
powerful mediums through which the people most in need of an audience can looking for ways to create one
In the end, then, maybe the answer’s simple. Like with curly fries, studying and being punched in the head for fun, maybe moderation is key. People need to know how social media is affecting them and what they can do to stop it. They need to be able to balance the good with the bad. The reality is, of course, that working out exactly what’s good and exactly what’s bad is a tangled mess of corporate interest and politics and money and research that hasn’t been done. But maybe it’s worth it.