What does social media have in common with cave drawings, the printing press, and the telephone?
They’re all part of an elite group of inventions we celebrate for having revolutionized the very nature of human communication. They were so instrumental in our civilization’s advancement that we think of history as divided into the periods before and after each. For social media, that distinction came in 2003 with the release of Myspace. Although we didn’t realize it at the time, our relationships, culture, and way of life were on the precipice of an extraordinary and irreversible transformation—one that history will judge as either a giant leap forward for mankind or a stumble into the abyss.
The best and worst of social media
At its best, social media leads to unlikely friendships, positive social movements, and connections that transcend physical distance. At its worst, social media amplifies the darkest instincts of human nature. It fuels jealousy and anger, provides a safe harbor for hatred, and feeds into a mob mentality.
Instead of using social media for good, advanced algorithms give bad actors the power to reinforce unconscious bias, sow distrust, and foster cultural balkanization by controlling the flow of information. While initially unassuming, social media has proven to be the most powerful weapon in human history.
Young people are at greater risk
Unfortunately, today’s hyper-connected world often portrays life as a competition, which is entirely the wrong mindset. It isn’t about winning or losing; it’s about being present in the moment. How can someone be happy and live a life of impact if they never feel good enough? Comparison is the thief of joy, and while promoting life as a zero-sum game is far from new, social media has lent credibility to this dangerous concept.
In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger introduced Social Comparison Theory. His working hypothesis was that individuals unconsciously determine their level of self-worth by comparing themselves with others. Much of his research centered on social comparison bias and the causation between comparison and feelings of injustice, depression, and jealousy. Dr. Festinger found that this practice can impact a person’s mental health and result in substance abuse, self-harm, and eating disorders.
A recent study concluded that “social media use was associated with a greater likelihood of…depressive symptoms.” While the study focused on adults, younger people are at even greater risk. Many young people fail to realize that social media influencers manipulate their videos and are multi-million-dollar brands that only reveal what sponsors want you to see.
In the past, beauty magazines came under fire for promoting an unattainable standard. Social media companies are involved in these same disturbing practices—except they have unprecedented access into the minds of our children. Advertisers can reinforce harmful messages each time a young person checks their device, which, for many, is a lot! What chance does a teenager (or younger) have at defending themselves against sophisticated, scientifically developed marketing campaigns designed to reinforce social comparison bias? The answer: little chance at all.
Learn to detach
Even with these flaws, social media itself is not inherently evil. It can be a powerful tool if we rethink how we use it, become more aware of its dangers, and teach our children how to consume content responsibly (let’s be honest, adults need to work on that too). With its widespread adoption across society, eliminating social media from your life is unrealistic, but limiting it is not. Along with being healthy, setting limits can help you achieve your goals. Success requires focus, dedication, and time; the countless hours wasted scrolling through videos could be time spent bettering yourself.
I invite you to unplug each Saturday by turning off your screens and silencing distractions. While limiting your digital access won’t be easy, it’ll be well worth it. Here are two essential things to remember when you do:
1. Accountability: Tell a friend or family member what you’re doing, preferably someone who is with you a lot. They can be your support system and help you remain accountable.
2. Resiliency: Don’t be too hard on yourself for slipping up. Just be prepared to get back on track and keep moving forward. At the same time, that’s not an excuse to give it anything less than 100 percent.
We’ve all been convinced that life is about staying connected. After spending some time making memories with friends and being present with family, you’ll realize that life isn’t about staying connected; it’s about experiencing genuine connections.