The power and precipice of social media

There is a nearly unlimited variety of content created across social media platforms. Photo by Adam Fleischer

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Over the past few years, conversations about the effects of social media on society have been taking pop culture by storm. Almost every teen magazine or website features articles urging people to take a “social media detox” and make more time for in-person interactions. We frequently draw connections between the rise of mental health diagnoses in Gen Z and the development of Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. However, these broad negative generalizations tend to overlook how social media can benefit individuals, communities and society. While building a healthy relationship with the internet is an important aspect of wellness, social media can be an incredible tool to shape our futures if we harness its power carefully. 

Firstly, we’re constantly told to get off our phones and talk to people “in real life” because face-to-face interactions are considered more meaningful than virtual ones. While I do believe in-person interactions are important, dismissing the value of online conversations can be harmful. Social media doesn’t destroy communication with in-person friends; it simply requires you to divide your time between in-person interactions and online interactions. 

Social media also helps us form and maintain relationships with people who don’t live nearby. I can stay in touch with friends who are traveling, check in on people who have moved away, and make new connections halfway around the world. Hanging out with friends in person is a unique and special experience, but messaging facilitates communication between visits and helps us stay connected. 

Contrary to popular belief, social media can also be a huge mental health aid when used properly. In countries like the U.S., where therapy is expensive and often inaccessible, online mental health communities can provide much-needed support. Instagram accounts that provide daily affirmations, tips for managing anxiety or cute puppy videos can make your day a little better. You shouldn’t trust every piece of advice you find on the internet, but there are plenty of knowledgeable creators who can help you manage your mental health. 

For marginalized people, social media can provide communities and support systems that don’t exist in their physical location. The online LGBTQIA+ community, for example, has helped many young queer people explore their identities, educate themselves on queer history and get queer safety tips (like information on safe sex and chest binding) in a judgment-free space. Online friendships can empower marginalized people and even save lives. 

Social media can raise awareness for social issues, making it an excellent vehicle for change. When racial justice activists on social media demanded justice for Black victims of police violence, anti-Black police brutality gained national attention. In countries with strict media censorship, social media gives people access to independent news. Furthermore, social media sparks interactions between people with diverse perspectives so we can educate ourselves and overcome our own ignorance. 

Of course, platforms that amplify marginalized voices can also amplify discriminatory ones, and social media is not immune to bigotry. White supremacist groups, anti-vax conspiracy theorists and misogynistic incel communities have all used the internet to spread their agendas, and I cannot deny their harmful impacts on society. But social media itself is not inherently good or evil; it is merely a tool that both sides use. 

We must fight inequity on these platforms as passionately as we fight inequity in the streets. However, most people critiquing social media seem more concerned about how teenage girls dancing on TikTok are “superficial,” rather than online cults of violently misogynistic men discussing how to oppress women. Let’s unpack that. 

There is a nearly unlimited variety of content created across social media platforms. Photo by Adam Fleischer

Many people see social media as a cesspool of vanity, where shallow people post glamorous pictures for the hollow validation of likes and heart-eye emojis. But while some influencers do build platforms around being stylish rather than participating in intellectually stimulating discussions, social media only offers a small glimpse into people’s lives, so it’s hard to judge a person’s emotional depth or intelligence based on the seriousness of their TikToks. 

Likewise, vitriol regarding the “shallowness” of social media is disproportionately directed towards young women who post upbeat, slice-of-life content. But why does every post need to be deeply meaningful to be valid? Why shouldn’t we post selfies and Sephora hauls and pics of our boba? Why is it wrong to enjoy feeling pretty? Life is often bleak, exhausting and frightening; celebrating the little things can bring us the momentary joy that keeps us alive. Cute vlogs may not end world hunger, but they can make us smile. 

Social media creators are often criticized for presenting a “curated” version of their lives. Many influencers do manipulate light, angles and filters to look their best, and people rarely look as glamorous in person as they do in posed photos. However, we’ve become so obsessed with authenticity that we’ve started judging people’s character based on how much unfiltered content they post. Just as Plato denounced art because it cannot capture all the nuances of the subject, we determine people’s worth by how closely their social media reflects reality. 

People should not feel obligated to share their insecurities and personal struggles on social media just to prove that they’re authentic, and demanding to see people at their worst is an invasion of privacy. It’s important to remember that social media doesn’t tell a person’s whole story: each person has the right to share as much or as little as they like. 

Some people don’t like social media because they feel jealous when they see other people sharing the positive things in their lives, and that’s valid. However, we often blame social media for making us jealous instead of acknowledging that jealousy is a normal human emotion that shows up in all social spaces, including social media. Eliminating social media can reduce how many times we see things that make us jealous, but it won’t eliminate our insecurities. Instead of avoiding interactions with people who are beautiful or successful, we should build our own confidence so we can manage our jealous tendencies. 

If the downsides of social media still outweigh the benefits for you, you can choose not to use it. Although we cannot fully control the content we see via the apps’ algorithms, you can learn to practice mindful consumption by setting limits on your app usage or not using social media after a certain time of day. Social media gives you the power to cultivate your own little world full of things you love. Anything can be harmful in excess, but dismissing all social media as toxic, shallow, inauthentic or unintelligent discredits all the ways it can be used for good. I’ve found that social media, like everything, can be used for good or bad purposes. It’s up to you to decide how you will use it.