A study from the Pew Research Center found 28% of adults relayed they are on their phones “almost constantly.” It points to the ubiquity of phones in daily life, and the role of social media in devouring hours of time. Social media continues to shift society in fundamental ways, with both negative and positive consequences. Loneliness and social media-driven depression.
Pressing Societal Concerns
On Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok, the focus for users is quantity over quality. Producing a large amount of content is of paramount importance because users want high numbers of likes and followers. Personal communication and keeping up with old friends are no longer primary functions of social. The platforms are instead communication and ad-serving environments where users are pushed into habit-forming behaviors. This behavioral dynamic is good for companies that rely on advertisers, and puts money into the pockets of influencers, but at what cost?
Multiple studies, such as one titled “Association Between Social Media Use and Depression among U.S. Young Adults,” correlates higher levels of social media usage with incidence of depression. Social media usage also comes with a host of other problems including cyberbullying, body image issues, and of course the FOMO, the “fear of missing out.” Social media also drives feelings of loneliness, as users engage with celebrities and other people they don’t know in the real world and see the fun adventures others are taking on Instagram. An annual study from Cigna has discovered increasing rates of loneliness among heavier social media users, stating “Social media has a major impact on loneliness with very heavy social media users significantly more likely to feel alone, isolated, left out and without companionship.”
Despite the problems with social media platforms at the societal level, there are some benefits. Social media does allow people to connect across distances, which is useful for busy people that can’t connect with every friend individually. Sharing kids’ birthdays and other milestones allows people to spread their happiness to others and keep them informed about their important life events. Social is also a driver for change as it enables people to talk together directly, bypassing governments and other organizations that might want to challenge or suppress thoughts. There’s a freedom of speech element to social media, and those users with large followings will (hopefully) use their platform to inspire change or encourage beneficial behaviors.
People on social media can also talk with each other across geographic lines, enabling the free flow of information and broader understanding. It builds awareness, through movements such as #MeToo that highlighted the pervasive problems of sexual harassment and inequality. New types of emerging social media platforms aim to shift the social focus from empty communication and entertainment to positive sharing with meaningful friends. Some platforms are focusing on helping users archive life’s more important memories, with the ability to share that information instantly or in the future, through time-capsule messages or family tree connections.
Potential Changes in Social Media
Unfortunately, the structures of the biggest social networks will prevent them from significant change in how people experience their social media platforms. Instagram and Facebook are built for both long-term and short-term engagement. Their success is a simple equation. The more time people spend on the app, the more they are exposed to revenue-generating ads. Therefore, their entire business model is predicated on keeping the users’ attention through any means possible. They are tracking our every move, monitoring our every movement and exploiting all of that data for profit. Without a monetary incentive to change, social media platforms can pay lip service to social loneliness, depression, and other ills, but they’re not going to adjust their fundamental structures.
There is a groundswell of support for newer models for social media. For example, some new firms like the soon to be released Leavemark, offer an ad free data storage and social media hybrid, where users get the best of both types of services, but where user privacy is key. New players in social are moving away from data mining, selling that user information and ad-based models that encourage users to stay on the platform for unhealthy amounts of time. There’s a push for “closing the circle” of the average person’s network of social friends. So instead of 500 “friends” that include acquaintances and other people they’ve never met, a social site might instead consist of close friends and relatives.
This paring down of social circles should result in deeper connections and reduced feelings of loneliness and comparisons to others in a negative way. Many users also desire the ability to reduce negative posts, and to better filter their news feeds to make them more relevant and positive, as opposed to driven by ad views and “metrics.” They want more privacy and to experience social in a new way, even if that means joining a paid platform. When it comes to social, “free” is not free due to information sharing and data mining. There’s a push coming from new social platforms and users to introduce paid social media. This is intended to reduce or eliminate ads and to shift the entire business model and the corresponding social issues.