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The pros and cons of social media

Social media may seem ubiquitous today yet it is still a relatively new phenomenon. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were founded in the mid-2000s but only achieved widespread attention towards the end of the decade, followed in the mid-2010s by Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

The change they have brought – to how we interact with each other, consume information and express ourselves – is staggering. Yet the sudden emergence of social media as the dominant form of communication means that those who use it regularly, and who have grown up knowing nothing else, appear to be canaries in the coal mine.

“Social media is an excellent tool, and it can also be a harmful distraction,” said Fox News. “It has both its pros and its cons, and everyone uses it for different reasons,” highlighting how hard it is to quantify its risks and benefits from person to person.

1

Pro: maintain connections

“The biggest pro of social media is that it allows you to keep in touch with people,” said Fox News, while at the same time “introducing you to people you may not have met otherwise”. The clue is in the name. Social media was first and foremost about building and maintaining social interactions among family, friends and then strangers.

As new platforms developed so did the way in which people used them. “The change was almost invisible, but it had enormous consequences,” said The Atlantic. “Instead of facilitating the modest use of existing connections – largely for offline life (to organise a birthday party, say) – social software turned those connections into a latent broadcast channel,” the magazine added. “All at once, billions of people saw themselves as celebrities, pundits, and tastemakers.”

2

Con: depression and anxiety

The impact on mental health, especially among children and adolescents, has long dominated debate around the use of social media. Numerous studies have found links between heavy social media use at a young age and negative self-esteem, body dysmorphia and higher psychological distress. This is especially true among girls, with the UK government moving to introduce new laws to safeguard children from the effects of social media-triggered depression.

Experts have raised concerns about how social media use activates the reward circuits in the brain, which can cause addiction, said USA Today, while those with a history of trauma are also particularly vulnerable. At least 15 children under 13 who tried to participate in the TikTok viral “blackout challenge” have died, said Vox. “While pursuing the dream that TikTok dangled in front of them – becoming an overnight superstar – many more have become burnt out, disillusioned, or otherwise hurt.”

3

Pro: changed politics and news

For all the talk of social media as a toxic cesspit, “it has also encouraged young people to vote, to engage in local politics, and to organize – sometimes against TikTok itself”, said Vox. It has revolutionised the way people receive information, forever democratising news. It has changed politics (for good or bad depending on your outlook) by ushering in Brexit and Donald Trump but also by helping those living in repressive regimes communicate and mobilise. The Arab Spring was made possible by social media and it is the front line of the communication battle raging in Russia and Ukraine today.

4

Con: cognitive overload

“Social media can be mentally draining,” argued Matthew Pittman, assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Tennessee, in The Conversation. Citing recent experiments on how social media affects behaviour, he said: “You are more likely to be influenced by a high number of likes on posts – even to the point of clicking on ads for products you don’t need or want.” Yet the effect of “cognitive overload” can result in more than just buying things you do not need.

The endless access to information is perhaps of greatest concern for children, Dr Adam Brown, a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, told USA Today. As a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics has shown, checking social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram too often can even affect how the brain develops in early adolescence, with students who checked social media habitually displaying differences in brain development related to emotions, motivation and cognitive control.

5

Pro: provides education

It is important to stress the educational and entertainment aspects of social media, said Fox News. “A lot of people end up discovering new musicians, styles of clothing they want to try out, or even facts about the world that they didn’t know before,” the news channel added. Providing a vital window to the outside world during the Covid pandemic, it has inspired people “to make fun iced coffee drinks, to pursue careers in arts and entertainment, to romanticise their lives, to feel more positively about their own bodies”, said Vox.

6

Con: privacy concerns

Fake news, otherwise known as disinformation, has been around in one form or another for centuries. Yet the rise in social media has turbo-charged it. The impact of social media “echo-chambers” and online “trolls” can be seen in the stark polarisation of societies around the world and the rise in populist politicians, which have come to define the age we live in. Added to this is a growing concern over privacy and security. The Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 revealed how data from platforms such as Facebook was being manipulated for political gain by third parties.

More recently, concern about TikTok’s links to the Chinese state has resulted in the UK following the US and banning ministers and civil servants from having it on their phone. The Sunday Times said TikTok “has long maintained” that it does not store users’ data in China, but Beijing’s laws require firms, including tech companies, to aid the Communist Party and its intellectual services “when asked to do so”, and Western security officials have warned that “this could expose vast amounts of data” globally.

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