Social media is what we make it

We need to stop blaming technology for our own shortcomings.

Trent M. Kays

Modern technology is pervasive. It has made our lives easier and more complex. The advent of the always-on lifestyle seems to have left us little alone time. With a smartphone in one hand and a laptop in the other, many people have unparalleled access not only to information but also to people. Yet, some suggest this 21st-century lifestyle is adverse to the human experience.

I find it problematic to blame technology and, more specifically, social media for negative aspects of the human experience. Not only is it problematic, but also it is based on a position that the negative is something new. A recent study conducted by the University of Salford in the United Kingdom suggests social media encourages low self-esteem and higher anxiety. It appears some users’ experience with social media unfavorably affects their
“offline” lives.

I do not doubt there are some social media experiences that cause trouble. I have been on the receiving end of hate-fueled trolling both on Facebook and Twitter. It’s not pleasant. As one who is quite active in online circles, I know it is something that comes with the territory. But I’ve never consciously let those experiences create so much anxiety that I have trouble sleeping. Of course, everyone is not like me.

Certainly anxiety and self-esteem issues can be intensified by social media use. It would be silly to think otherwise. However, life absent of our online connections can do the same. Social media is not unique in doing so; it only amplifies what already existed. Social media has allowed us to do things we might not once have been able to do. For example, the Occupy Wall Street movement or the Arab Spring probably would not have been possible without the aid of social media and other online technologies.

Did the Arab Spring’s use of social media cause anxiety? Probably no more than the thought of being arrested and interrogated by the police, which could happen at any time. Indeed, those instances did not create anxiety; they simply amplified and focused it for us. A similar argument could be made about loneliness and social media. These issues are linked because they both bring assumptions about what social media should be and not what social media is.

A recent study conducted by the Australia Institute argues the amount of loneliness Facebook users experience directly correlates to the amount of “friends” they have on Facebook. That is, fewer friends means increased loneliness. But how is this different from our offline existence?

Social media doesn’t make one lonely; it amplifies a loneliness that already existed. Technology is a tool influenced by what users bring to it. The urge to blame technology for some of our problems isn’t unique. Similar arguments have been made about many technologies. For example: firearms, telegraphs, telephones, televisions, etc.

Social media has allowed people to connect with others they may never have connected with. I can connect with a colleague and friend in London via Facebook while I chat with a friend in Los Angeles on Twitter. That is an amazing feat, yet I don’t think people recognize it.

Technology’s pervasiveness has allowed us to blame it for our shortcomings. While peer pressure does exist, ultimately no one makes us use social media. Perhaps we should stop blaming technology for our problems and instead look at how we use technology to achieve whatever goals we set out.