The ubiquity of social media has gotten many a behavioural psychologist ruminating about its effects on humankind, with arguments for/against often dominating forums and discourses online and offline.
But the question has to be asked: where does one draw the line with prevalent expectations regarding responsible usage of social media? Is it just the kind of site that pops into your head when you think of sites that a person might reasonably use their real name for, or is it based on what the most active users of a site might do?
On Twitter, for example, a lot of the more active users will be using pseudonyms and have an anime profile pic or whatever. Plenty of people view having your real name and face attached to a Twitter account as being the thing you do for your professional account or, if not explicitly a professional account, then a more heavily curated account that’s safe for a coworker or family member to see. I’d be shocked if the people with a pseudonym and an anime profile picture account weren’t using the site more heavily than people who were exclusively maintaining a curated, professional or safe-for-professional-viewing account.
An analogy can be made that many people don’t think that because some people are alcoholics, therefore all alcohol should be banned ergo, nobody will ever argue that social media should be banned; just that it does more harm than good.
You can argue that alcohol does more harm than good without arguing for it being banned, as a ban on alcohol would introduce new harm.
And, can you honestly argue that, in society as a whole, alcohol does more good than harm? It’d be a really hard case to make, given drunk driving, bar fights, drunken partner violence, drunken non-consensual sex, alcohol poisoning, alcoholism, hangovers, etc. It’s pretty obvious to any discerning mind that alcohol does more harm than good.I’d think that most people would agree that alcohol, gambling, and refined sugar do more harm than good, but most people also believe in personal liberties, so not many people support banning these things.
Is dopamine High?
Dovetailing further, one can also make the argument that algorithm-based, endless-scrolling social media is doing more harm than good.
This is because social media, as a concept, has the potential to do great good in the world, but when it is structured to be a dopamine trap and take as much of your time and attention as possible, the negative consequences cannot be quantified.
However, it doesn’t have to be like this. I’d say that social media can be a boon to your ability to form communities with like-minded people and share your passion.
Snapchat can be a great way to stay connected with friends and loved ones that are far away. And even Instagram and Twitter which are scientifically proven to lower mental health could easily change their structure to be better for the user experience rather than focusing on holding your attention.
While many people are already ensconced in their opinions about social media, there are some benefits, so the normal approach one might take of listing the benefits won’t be persuasive because you can simply say, “Yes yes, but the costs are still greater.”
The major costs and benefits are both “mental well-being”, which is nearly impossible to quantify. Also, the cost-to-benefit ratio is going to be different for every individual, so the problem is even harder because the question now becomes about the net positive or negative across all of society in aggregate.
Even a robust analysis of net positives may not be persuasive unless it considers the totality of society.
So what’s needed to change your mind is a very large-scale and robust body of scientific research on the question, but that doesn’t exist yet because social media is still quite new.
All that said, let me try a few arguments of a more limited scope that at least have the upside of being possible.
– First, I think we can postulate that, while the net impact of social media for some people is negative, it’s also true that for some people it’s positive. In general, in society, when we have something that is a net positive for many, we don’t generally take an overall negative view of that thing just because there are others for whom it is a net negative. I know a lot of people who use social media in a healthy positive way that adds enjoyment to our lives, many more than those for whom it is a net negative. So, based just on my sample, I would argue that social media is doing more good than harm and should overall be viewed as a positive in society, even with the known downsides for some.
– There are populations for whom social media is the indispensable lifeline for human connection and mental health. So just the fact that it is available as such a critical support for overlooked populations like shut-ins, to me, is a strong argument for its positive impact on society.
Can social media harm and do bad? Sure.
Can social media help and do good? Sure.
For everything you have mentioned that social media has negatively impacted others, it has done the opposite to positively impact others.
I will address some other misgivings.
Validation? Sure, some people will strive to have validation, but wouldn’t they also do that in their own lives? Why is social media the sole cause of harm? Also, for some people, social media may help provide validation for some that would otherwise not receive that validation from their parents, friends, family, etc. Many people have online friends which have greatly helped them feel validated, welcomed, and part of something.
Inadequacy? For every person that has compared themselves to something they have seen online and felt inadequate to, there has been the other side where people have connected and felt adequate compared to others. You can find all types of online communities that have connected people and helped them feel better about who they are. This goes for people with disabilities, people with niche hobbies, people of different cultures, and so on.
Addictiveness? Sure. Social media can be very addicting to some people, but so are a lot of things. Do all things that are addictive cause more harm than good? Hard to say. Depends on the person. There are drugs like caffeine that are addictive, but that is one of the most widely accepted and promoted addictions out there.
Constant information? Sure this can be overwhelming and lead to burnout, but it has also helped provide billions of people with instant news, updates, health and safety, and many other things.
For every negative, there is a positive from social media. There wouldn’t be nearly as many people using it if that wasn’t true. Can social media do more harm than good for specific people? Of course, but for the overall world? I don’t think so.