As a 20-something who does not currently participate in social media, I am in the minority. According to a 2012 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of internet users ages 18-29 use social media.
Until recently, I participated in social media. I found myself feeling distracted and agitated, so I quit for the time being. When I tell people, especially those in my age group, that I do not use social media, many are shocked and some offended. For the most part, it's been a non-issue for me. I don't spend time, energy or emotional investment maintaining or thinking about a "web presence," and I am genuinely happier for it. But for some people it's a big deal. This column is for those people.
There is no doubt that social media has dramatically changed the way people interact in the relatively short time it has been around. I don't know, and I don't think anyone knows yet, if these changes are for the better. There seems to be no real consensus in the social sciences about social media.
The biggest change brought about by social media is the trend away from face-to-face social interaction to the safer and easier alternatives offered by social media and the accompanying smartphone technology. Face-to-face interaction can be uncomfortable and awkward, but it serves a purpose. We build stronger relationships and learn crucial social skills through face-to-face interaction. Social media is such a successful product because it takes a lot of the hard work and anxiety out of social interaction. It's much easier to have relationships on social media but those relationships often lack the substance and value of those founded on face-to-face interaction.
It seems to me that, in the case of social media, "social" is just a hip, meaningless buzzword used to sell product. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines the word social as "liking to be with and talk to people: happy to be with people." When we use social media we are not with people. We are alone, staring at images of people via an internet capable device. When we interact with people using social media we do not see their facial expressions change, observe their body language, or otherwise feel the presence of another human being.
This may be part of why bullying is so prevalent on social media. Bullies doing their bullying via social media don't have to directly see or experience the pain they are inflicting on another person. Social media shields them from all the stimuli that would normally trigger some sense of empathy.
The same goes, to a lesser extent, for everyone who uses social media: We're all a little bolder, more frank and mean. Social media, despite big claims of making us all "connected" and "social," is quite impersonal, lonely and sometimes downright cruel.
I also take issue with the idea that social media giants and smartphone manufacturers are ambivalent entities that want only to advance wholesome new-age agenda of "connectedness" and "being social." The reality is that these are billion dollar enterprises with bottom lines, payrolls, and more recently, shareholders. Their goal is to sell their product and make a profit like any other successful company.
Like tobacco, fast food, television and just about everything else that has caused a major public health uproar over the last half century, social media is, in part, so profitable because it's addictive. Anyone who has used social media knows how addictive it is. To further illustrate my point or if you just want to witness an emotional meltdown, observe your average smartphone user as their phone's battery goes dead without any way to recharge it. Friends in this situation have told me they feel "naked" and anxious. That sounds a lot like dependence to me.
With the current smartphone technology there's nothing stopping people from constantly and compulsively checking social media. According to a study done by the IPSOS Open Thinking Exchange, the average social media user spends 3.6 hours on various social media sites. This makes for a world of distracted people. On a regular basis, I have conversations with people staring at their phones, pass drivers clearly looking at their phone, and generally see people everywhere staggering around looking at their phone.
Modern social media myth tells us that more is better: More devices, more social media; more "ways to stay connected." Far from empowering us, doing all these things at once just makes us scatter-brained and oblivious to our surroundings.
The late Stanford professor Clifford Nass, who studied multi-tasking, had this to say in an interview with NPR: "The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multi-tasking."
The purpose of this column is not to tell people to stop using social media or throw away their smartphones. I certainly don't feel it is my place to tell people how to live, and I'm sure the majority of smartphone and social media users are, for the most part, responsible in their use of these technologies.
I think part of my uneasiness has to do with the fact that I recall a time (about half my life) when social media didn't exist and people seemed to get by alright. My wariness toward social media is probably no different from that of people in the early 1900s who grew up in a world without telephones. The telephone utterly transformed the way people live in a short time. The telephone was a vital technological development that made instant communication over long distances possible. It undoubtedly made people's lives better.
The real question about social media and smartphones, or any technology for that matter, is: Do they make our lives better?
Only time will answer that question.
(Devin Bezeredi is a reporter for The Review. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org)