Whenever there’s a significant technological advance that fundamentally changes the way people live, it generates debate over the nature of that change and whether it’s “good” or “bad.” Internet-based, social media tools like email, Facebook, and YouTube that have revolutionized the way human beings get information and communicate and interact with one another. In the relatively short time, they’ve been in existence, social media has had some very positive effects in terms of empowering and connecting people. At the same time, they have provided new platforms for some decidedly unhealthy and destructive behaviors.
Some of the leading arguments for this technology–the pros and cons of social media–are outlined below. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support either assessment; however, research into the effects of social media is still in its infancy, so scientific data are relatively scarce. What is clear is that the internet, social media sites, and the digital devices on which they operate are here to stay. Therefore, it is incumbent on each of us to understand, and help others to understand, how to use them productively and responsibly.
Pros of Social Media
One of the biggest pros of social media is that it nurtures and expands relationships. Improving communication and strengthening human connection is the reason social media emerged. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, chat groups, LinkedIn, and countless other social networking sites help people build on existing relationships, make new friends, and reinvigorate relationships that have lapsed over time. Regardless of where a person lives, it’s possible to find others who share the same interests and concerns.
Social media has exponentially increased the resources for mental health information and support. Research shows that people who get support from peers (those struggling with the same problems) have better health outcomes, whether they have a physical condition like diabetes or a psychological one like depression. Internet support groups, discussion boards, blogs, and other social media platforms have significantly enhanced the resources for individuals wrestling with mental health, behavioral, and/or addiction issues. Online support offers certain advantages that make it attractive to individuals who might not otherwise seek help, for example:
Anonymity. Many people find it easier to share problems and feelings openly when there’s minimal risk of identification or “real-life” consequences.
24/7 availability. The internet never sleeps, and with the prevalence of cell phones, you don’t even need to be home at your computer to access the resources you need. In the event of a crisis, this can truly be life-saving; web-based support communities have been credited with saving people from suicide and accidental drug overdoses.
No geographic limitations. Location can be an obstacle to participating in traditional support groups that require physical attendance. Online groups pull members from all over and can host larger numbers of people, adding to the pool of knowledge and experience.
The internet and social media boost productivity. These tools offer more information— including real-time news—than a library full of encyclopedias, and the information’s accessible at any time of day or night. Studies have linked internet/social media use with greater success in academics as well as improved job performance and employment prospects. Social media gives small business owners the power to be more competitive with larger companies. By simply creating and maintaining a Facebook account they can reach a wider audience, perform better customer service, share press releases and other company news, connect with job seekers, and more.
Cons of Social Media
The very same attributes that make social media a positive force in our lives make it potentially dangerous. For example, anonymity allows for cyberbullying. This is especially problematic for teens, as bullies can target and prey on vulnerable high school peers without taking personal responsibility. Stalking can also be an issue, as social media users sometimes post their whereabouts, and their habits can be easily monitored.
Just as it can bring people together for constructive reasons, social media can connect dissatisfied, disgruntled, and misguided people together, further fueling negative attitudes and beliefs, or even making things like coordinated terrorist attacks more possible.
Teens and young adults are considered particularly at risk to negative effects. They’re a generation raised on the internet, social media, and digital technology so these things are integral, indispensable parts of their lives. Young people also are impressionable, eager for acceptance, and relatively inexperienced, which can cloud judgment. Most adults today remember what life was like before the internet, social media, and mobile devices so it’s easier to step away from them. But it has still proved problematic, especially for adults who are prone to addictive behavior or have pre-existing mental health issues.
Social Media and Internet Addiction
Social media is addictive. Internet addiction is not officially listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the mental health profession’s guide to classifying psychological disorders. However, in the recently revised DSM-5, “Internet Gaming Disorder” is mentioned as “a condition warranting more clinical research and experience” for possible inclusion as a “formal disorder.” Lack of formal recognition hasn’t stopped people from referring to compulsive internet use—for gaming or any other reason—as an “addiction.” Several recent studies seem to support this conclusion, including brain imaging studies of compulsive internet users that have shown structural and functional brain abnormalities similar to those found in people with substance abuse problems.
While it remains to be seen when and if Internet Addiction will make it into the DSM, the characteristics of pathological internet use are very similar to the ones listed for “Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders”:
Preoccupation with substance/activity
Use to improve one’s mood
Increasing tolerance (need to spend more time or take larger quantities to achieve same “high”)
Loss of other interests
Continued use despite awareness of the harm it’s causing
Withdrawal symptoms when the object of the addiction is no longer available
Unsuccessful attempts to quit
More of the Bad Side
Social media invites us to compare ourselves with others. For people with self-esteem issues and insecurities, hearing about other people’s happiness and successes can deepen feelings of inferiority. It’s easy to forget that social media posts, like photos of air-brushed models in magazines, can present an idealized, heavily edited version of what’s actually going on. In addition, some determine their self-worth based on their number of Facebook friends or how many likes, shares, or other interactions they receive.
Social media is detrimental to face-to-face interaction. It’s hard not to be concerned when you see a group of people sitting together, each engrossed in his or her own smartphone or iPad constantly scrolling through their news feed. And studies indicate that irresponsible use of social media can have that effect.
Another one of the cons of social media the viral nature of content distribution. It allows unreliable/false information as well as indiscreet remarks and photos to spread quickly.
Once something’s out there, you can’t take it back.
…And the Middle Ground
Dr. David Buch, Chief Medical Officer of Carrier Clinic® (a Central Jersey behavioral health center), sums up:
As with any healthy relationship, use of social media should have its boundaries.
Ultimately, whether social media is “good” or “bad”/“healthy” or “unhealthy” for a person’s mental health and well-being is directly related to how they are used (or abused), by whom, and to some degree by who is passing judgment. Key to enjoying the benefits while avoiding the problems is to use these powerful tools sensibly, constructively, and in moderation. Like food, which we truly can’t live without, the right choices in the right amounts keep people healthy and satisfied, while poor choices and excess consumption can lead to significant, potentially life-threatening health conditions.