I used to think social media was essentially a force for good, whether it was to initiate the Arab spring of 2011, or simply as a useful tool for bringing together like-minded people to share videos of ninja cats. Having spent a lot of time thinking about mental health, I even saw social media’s much-maligned potential for anonymity as a good thing, helping people to open up about problems when they might not feel able to do so in that physical space we still quaintly call real life.
Move Fast and Break Things by Jonathan Taplin review – the damage done by Silicon Valley
I also knew from my own experience that it could sometimes provide a happy distraction from the evil twins of anxiety and depression. I have made friends online. As an author, it’s also been a great way to test new ideas, and has taken storytelling from its castle in the sky back down to the metaphorical (now hashtag-heavy) campfire. As someone who often finds social situations mentally exhausting, social media seemed far more solution than problem.
Yes, I would occasionally feel that maybe staring at my Twitter feed near-continuously for seven hours wasn’t that healthy, especially when I was arguing with an army of Trump fans telling me to jump off a cliff. Yes, I’d see articles warning of the dangers of excessive internet use, but I dismissed these as traditional, reactionary takes. I saw social media naysayers as the first reviewers of Technicolor movies, who felt the colour distracted from the story, or were like the people who walked out on Bob Dylan at Newport folk festival for playing an electric guitar, or like those who warned that radio or TV or video games or miniskirts, or hip-hop or selfies or fidget spinners or whatever, would lead to the end of civilisation.
I remember a Daily Mail headline, “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer”, which made things even clearer: to be anti-social media was to be hysterically on the wrong side of history.
Then I started the research for a book I am writing on how the external world affects our mental health. I wanted to acknowledge the downsides of social media, but to argue that far from being a force for ill,it offers a safe place where the insanities of life elsewhere can be processed and articulated.
But the deeper into the research I went, the harder it was to sustain this argument. Besides the Daily Mail screeching about the dangers, other people – scientists, psychologists, tech insiders and internet users themselves – were highlighting ways in which social media use was damaging health.
Even the internet activist and former Google employee Wael Ghonim – one of the initiators of the Arab spring and one-time poster boy for internet-inspired revolution – who once saw social media as a social cure – now saw it as a negative force. In his eyes it went from being a place for crowdsourcing and sharing, during the initial wave of demonstrations against the Egyptian regime, to a fractious battleground full of “echo chambers” and “hate speech”: “The same tool that united us to topple dictators eventually tore us apart.” Ghonim saw social media polarising people into angry opposing camps – army supporters and Islamists – leaving centrists such as himself stuck in the middle, powerless.
And this isn’t just politics. It’s health too. A survey conducted by the Royal Society of Public Health asked 1,500 young people to keep track of their moods while on the five most popular social media sites. Instagram and Snapchat came out worst, often inspiring feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing. And according to another survey carried out by the youth charity Plan International UK, half of girls and two-fifths of boys have been the victims of online bullying.
The evidence is growing that social media can be a health risk, particularly for young people who now have all the normal pressures of youth (fitting in, looking good, being popular) being exploited by the multibillion-dollar companies that own the platforms they spend much of their lives on.
Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be.” This seems especially true now we have reached a new stage of marketing where we are not just consumers, but also the thing consumed. If you have friends you only ever talk to on Facebook, your entire relationship with them is framed by commerce. When we willingly choose to become unpaid content providers, we commercialise ourselves. And we are encouraged to be obsessed with numbers (of followers, messages, comments, retweets, favourites), as if operating in a kind of friend economy, an emotional stock market where the stock is ourselves and where we are encouraged to weigh our worth against others.
Of course, humans comparing themselves to others isn’t new. But when the others are every human on the internet, people end up comparing themselves – their looks, their relationships, their wealth, their lives – to the carefully filtered lives of people they would never meet in the real world – and feeling inadequate.
Abuse is another serious issue. In his devastating account of online entrepreneurs and their values, Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin talks of social media’s “Colosseum culture” of throwing people to the lions. “Punishing strangers ought to be a risky endeavour,” he writes. “But the anonymity of the internet shields the person who punishes the stranger.”
To let companies shape and exploit and steal our lives, would be the ultra-conservative option
Reading first-hand accounts by people with bulimia and anorexia who are convinced that social media exacerbated or even triggered their illnesses, I began to realise something: this situation is not the equivalent of Bob Dylan’s electric guitar. It is closer to the tobacco or fast-food industries, where vested interests deny the existence of blatant problems that were not there before.
To ignore it, to let companies shape and exploit and steal our lives, would be the ultra-conservative option. The one that says free markets have their own morality. The one that is fine entrusting our future collective health to tech billionaires. The one that believes, totally, in free will; and that mental health problems are either not significant, or are entirely of the individual’s making.
We are traditionally far better at realising risks to physical health than to mental health, even when they are interrelated. If we can accept that our physical health can be shaped by society – by secondhand smoke or a bad diet – then we must accept that our mental health can be too. And as our social spaces increasingly become digital spaces, we need to look seriously and urgently at how these new, business-owned societies are affecting our minds. We must try to see how the rising mental health crisis may be related to the way people are living and interacting.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg says that “by giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent”. But what we really need to do is make social media transparent.
Of course, we won’t stop using it – I certainly won’t – but precisely for that reason we need to know more about what it is doing to us. To our politics, to our health, to the future generation, and to the world around us. We need to ensure we are still the ones using the technology – and that the technology isn’t using us.
• Matt Haig is the author of How to Stop Time
[ This post is a response to Anju’s post about the Advantages of Social Media ]
Social Media, is a term much in circulation among young and old alike. In a world, where everything seems to be so fantasizing social media, takes a stand out of the box and becomes a means of survival. We tend to go just by the positives of this media and forget that even this social media has an evil face.
How old are you? Where do you come from? Do you need to give any such information so that you become eligible to use this mode of communication?
Accessible to all.
Facebook, Twitter, My Space all this are so user friendly, that they connect with the whole mass. Such an easy random connection is sure to have it’s road to ruin, don’t you think so? The very fact, that it is open to all makes it vulnerable to many depicts. From a kid to an old man everybody can use it with the same ease. No restrictions, no limitations!
Out there, many of you would surely argue that it connects you to the rest of the world and to some extent maybe this is true. But most of it is “false sense of association“, you might think that you’ve got a best friend online but what if such a person doesn’t even exist? This may even lead to you being drawn away from the real world where the relations are much more deeper and deliberate.
Now who among you, have not heard of cyber bullying? One word, which shouts out loud in this world of networks. Okay, so what is it? This means,the use of the information technology to continually harm or harass people to disturb them in all ways especially mentally.
The Catherine’s Facebook attack or the Ryan Halligan case, all led to horrifying outcomes, leading to physical violence and death of the individual respectively. This is like a drop in the ocean, many more cases have been reported and many gone unnoticed.
When it comes to public media, your private life becomes public thus, giving ample of chance for the misuse of your data that includes your pictures, location and others. You might have heard about the syndicate in Malaysia who turned rich by using photographs of Asian girls for their call girl service via Facebook. “So, you never know where will you find your photographs!”
Now, you would surely argue about the privacy options but frankly, how many of you really care about it?
This is an interesting fact and an hilarious one too, could you ever imagine that it alters your appetite too. Yeah, your appetite. According to women health, ‘food porn’ stimulates the brain reward center and compels viewers to overeat. Or think of the times when you just had your dinner and saw some delicious food pictures, it does trigger your hunger, doesn’t it?
Productivity of a firm can also decrease. You may say that, promoting your products online increases it’s supply but, what about those employees who are more interested in what their friend’s are posting online than these advertisements, in this way it “proves to be a major distraction for the process of production.“
How many of you have had your own opinion on any issue pertaining online? The post which has a 100k likes will be liked by you to even if it’s not according to your ideologies. It messes with your ability to think independently and thus comes in the mob mentality. It whimsically creates public opinion on an ongoing issue.
How many of you were happy when your profile picture got 200 likes? But what was your feeling when you saw your best friend getting a 400? Yes, it did hurt you, it hurt your self esteem. You felt broken and low and maybe went into depression also. This is what makes many end their life.
So, now you enough reasons to believe that this media has an evil face. A face which goes undiscovered by many of us.
Live talks are much above the posts on your wall!
[Image Credits : business2community.com]