By Leah Kramer, ESF
Social media plays a big role in teenagers’ lives – 90% of youths in countries represented in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) use social media and spend on average 4 hours per day online. It opens doors to new information and connects us with people all over the globe. But it also poses some dangers, like the bubble effect or opportunity cost. How much should we actually use social media, and for what?
Firstly, I would like to address the headlines about how social media and smartphones are responsible for sweeping negative trends, from rising suicide rates in the US, to widespread loss in memory, and reduced sleep and attention spans. The studies on the effects social media has are inconclusive, and these correlations may or may not be direct. I personally do not believe in these direct correlations, as we live in an attention-based society and economy, where people’s attention is the most soughtafter good. We are continuously exposed to dramatic and biased content designed to draw a reaction and attract readers. Not everything we read is accurate; a lot of it is exaggerated. Each era faces its unique set of conflicts; ours happens to be technologies . Therefore, I would encourage you to read news about teens with a grain of salt and not jump to conclusions. However, I am not discounting these effects. Social media can harm some teens more than others, but this article will address the general consequences of social media towards teenagers.
On social media, people decide who they follow and what topics they want to be exposed to. Logically, we choose to be exposed to the content we find most interesting and relevant to us. But this isn’t always good. Content that isn’t likely to please us is filtered out by algorithms designed to keep us on the site for as long as possible (A trait of an attention-based economy). So, our pre-existing worldview and interests are reinforced and intensified. The only news that makes it into our bubbles is news that will draw some kind of strong reaction from us – news that will make us angry, upset, happy. Therefore, the information has to be drastic. You might see on your feed: “This woman lost 10kg after only drinking water for a week while still feeling perfectly healthy or “Half of Australia’s forests are on fire.” Though such headlines are undoubtedly exaggerated and biased – in reality, this woman probably doesn’t exist, and only 20% of Australia’s forests were on fire.
This causes conflict and impairs our worldview — we grow to hate “boomers” because we believe them to be selfish racists, forgetting that our kind grannies belong to this group. We see the world as a dumpster fire. But this worldview is inaccurate. We may think it’s only a joke, but the line between believing and not believing is very thin and easy to cross. It drags us into a downward spiral, instead of seeing all the great things happening in the world like widespread education and a drastically sinking amount of people living in extreme poverty. This will eventually lead to harsher divisions between age-groups but also between political ideals (polarisation and radicalisation). Slowly the scissors between parties will widen, and people will be driven to a side. This will have consequences affecting the whole of society and its structure.
But social media in relation to news is also a great force of good. Awareness was raised about racism and police brutality, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are so much more aware of conflicts in the world, and it’s easier for us to help stop and prevent them and to therefore help people who are affected. We must find a balance; the sweet spot where people are mobilised to help others and are properly educated, but not where the seeds of misinformation and dissension are sowed.
Most teenagers spend hours scrolling through social media. We don’t even realise how long we spend on these apps, we just see something funny or interesting and want to see more, so we continue scrolling. But how much of what we read do we actually remember half an hour later? Not much. You might remember that funny video with the kid falling off his scooter, but you might not remember that post on Uyghurs in China you were momentarily enraged about. What you see often has no impact on you.
In addition, we tend to use social media as a distraction or as an escape from reality. We really don’t want to do that history homework, so we decide to spend ten minutes on YouTube, just as a way to put us in a good mood before we start. But thirty minutes later, we’re still watching a random YouTube video we’ll soon forget about and history will be far from our minds. Time flies, and suddenly we realise it’s already 17:00 and we’ve missed half of badminton practice. Was this a good use of our time? Social media can be a true opportunity cost. We think we’re in control or we think we are using our time wisely, but in reality, we’re just a slave to a society in which attention is the main currency and aren’t furthering ourselves. You can’t become a great football player if you only watch videos about Messi, right?
So, I urge you to examine your behaviour. Do you find yourself subconsciously checking your phone for any notifications? Can you sit through a meal without checking your phone, or can you resist taking your phone up to bed with you at night? Once you’ve started using an app, can you easily stop? If you can’t resist (which one in three teens can’t), try to alter your behaviour and find a balance that suits you; social media can be an addiction like any other. It is a wonderful resource and an incredible opportunity but remember that you have full control of your life — you decide what you spend your time on and what’s important to you, not anyone else — especially not a gadget. Do not let the attention economy’s manipulation of social media get the better of you. Let it serve you, not the other way around.