Opinions in Dialogue: Is social media helpful or harmful?

Are concerns about internet use overblown?

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Illustration. Someone using their smartphone against a black background. The phone light illuminates their face, which displays an exhausted expression. Surrounding them are illustrative emojis and notifications.
ILLUSTRATION: Angela Shen / The Peak

By: Jin Song, Peak Associate and Michelle Young, Copy Editor

Social media use has skyrocketed in recent years. What once felt like a novelty is now commonplace, as it’s become increasingly rare to meet someone who doesn’t use any form of social media. Concerns have been mounting for years about social media’s impact on aspects like mental health, childhood development, and sociability. Some say social media is flat-out harmful, others argue it’s all about how you use it, and some say these claims are overblown and it can foster community. While the truth usually lies somewhere in between, why are more and more people choosing to take a step back from their phone?

Jin: The evidence suggests social media is harmful and helpful. To me, the fact that there is so much contention in this case is a good demonstration of this conclusion. Social media has affected different people in vastly different ways. The general consensus seems to be that social media negatively impacts mental health, but there are so many things we can do now with it that we couldn’t before — instant sharing of information to an uncountable amount of people, for instance.

Michelle: A lot of information is more easily accessible now. While misinformation remains a huge problem, the potential for learning and connecting with others online is very powerful. Throughout my life, I’ve always been more of a homebody, but the internet has been invaluable in connecting me with people I may not have met otherwise, and has provided long-lasting friendships. While I’ve been satisfied with my social media usage for most of my life, I noticed myself more often checking my email worried I would miss something important, refreshing X (Twitter) and Pinterest when I was bored, and spending more time online than I intended. I recently took a drastic measure in forfeiting my iPhone for most of the day, and have been using a second-hand flip phone on Wi-Fi only as an alternative to keep me away from distractions. It’s cut down the time I spend scrolling and has made me use my time with media and the internet more intentionally. 

Jin: I’ve done something similar, carrying around a smartwatch instead of my phone (yes, Mr. Jobs, it’s also an iPhone) for general use. Indeed, there has been sufficient evidence to suggest that our brains just aren’t made to handle the waterfall of information that is the internet. Anecdotally speaking, I find myself more exhausted and overwhelmed after a long stint of web surfing than if I had, say, just read one book. 

The internet contains not only positive or neutral information but so much negativity too. To quote a New York Times article, “Our online news feeds aggregate all of the world’s pain and cruelty, dragging our brains into a kind of learned helplessness.”

Michelle: There are a lot of negative things on the internet. However, the digitization of online materials through archives and libraries is an invaluable resource. Though this isn’t necessarily a unique aspect of social media, it’s an example of how we have agency in how we use the internet. I know it’s easier said than done, but making a conscious effort in what we consume over social media can drastically impact our experience. For example, while I use X as a form of news, I curate other forms of social media so that news doesn’t necessarily appear in my YouTube or Pinterest algorithm. While there are differences between how we consume information over different mediums, negativity is also found in film and books — though typically if we don’t want to consume that kind of content we wouldn’t watch or read that form of media. I need a certain amount of brain power to watch a documentary, for example. The same can apply to social media, where you can follow or unfollow whichever accounts you want. This isn’t to say that we should spend all our time on the computer or social media either, but rather that there is curation involved. 

Jin: It’s common sense that internet users can choose what they use it for. No one is forcing you to engage with a certain platform. I agree with your point about being intentional with what we consume. Personally, I’ve adopted a form of digital minimalism, which is about recognizing that “new communication technologies have the potential to massively improve your life” and that getting there takes practice. It involves recognizing which tools “add the most value to your life,” and “clearing away low-value digital noise.”

The main negatives of social media for me is the massive influx of information and negative content. I’ve discovered that digital minimalism, while imperfect, is a very effective solution. I say imperfect because most modern social media platforms use algorithms that operate much like slot machines. Our feeds intentionally give us content that we may or may not like . . . it’s a gamble, which the human brain loves. The longer we stay on social media platforms, the more money the big corporations make. Both we, the clients, and the companies can benefit from a relationship like this, but there is definitely a fine line. 

Michelle: There is a lot of content out there, but social media is also so much more than that. Social media has fostered spaces for many marginalized communities, and especially those who are continually isolated during the ongoing pandemic. Social media has provided spaces for organizing not only in-person but also online, sharing action items that can be done from home. It’s not necessarily social media that’s bad, but the potential for how it’s used. 

Jin: Too much of anything — be it good, bad, or somewhere in between — can be harmful. I think all social media users can benefit from taking a step back once in a while. It can be enlightening to use that time to experiment with other hobbies and focus on real-world things that bring you joy. Personally, limiting my social media usage has really helped me stay in the present, and not think about an abstract digital future or a past experience that’s only documented as a tiny fragment of what it actually had been.

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