Social media began in the 1980s with dial-up bulletin board systems and CompuServe. Both platforms allowed for interaction through file sharing, email, discussion forums, and chatting. In 1993, AOL started mailing their ubiquitous CDs with free trials for their dial-up internet service and user-created communities. In 1997, the first official social media site, Six Degrees entered the fray. Six Degrees allowed users to make profiles, invite friends, create groups, and browse other people’s profiles. Similar sites such as Friendster and MySpace soon followed. Facebook launched in 2004 and operated exclusively at Harvard until 2006. In 2007, the debut of smartphones changed social media and communication completely. Many social media sites are now designed for use exclusively on smartphones.
It’s hard to imagine a time when social media was not a part of modern society. Today, seven out of ten Americans report using social media with Facebook being the most widely utilized platform. Young adults have the highest rates of Facebook use, but older adults are quickly catching up. Social media seems to be everywhere and is a part of our daily lives. Many people reach for their phones first thing in the morning to check Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. People use social media in the bathroom, while waiting in line at the grocery store, and while eating at restaurants. Gone are the days of inviting friends over to view a slideshow of your vacation photos. All you have to do is share them on Facebook or Instagram for immediate feedback. The days of having to wait for the newspaper to arrive to read the news are over. The majority of Americans now get their news from social media. We now have a generation that has never experienced the world without Google or Facebook. The constant presence of social media has resulted in debate over the potential positive and negative implications.
Social media is thought to be good for society in a number of ways. Thanks to social media, news can reach people faster than ever before and it is one of the best ways to stay informed. Social media also contributes to political and social change. One poll found that social media has the power to change user’s views on social and political issues in addition to views on political candidates. A study of Facebook users during a 2010 Congressional election provided evidence that people were more likely to vote if they saw activity of their Facebook friends voting. Social media is also a tool for organizing mass protests, such as the protests in Egypt that forced President Mubarak to resign. It has also proven instrumental for organizing relief efforts after natural disasters. In regards to economic impacts, social media sites such as LinkedIn are powerful tools for employees looking for jobs and vice versa. Social media is also an excellent marketing tool. Companies that engage with customers on social media have higher rates of brand loyalty.
Social media’s ability to contribute to feelings of connectedness are impacting interpersonal relationships in a number of ways. For teens in particular, they can feel a part of something by connecting with other teens interested in the same social movements, music or fashion. Social media is also a good way to stay in touch with geographically dispersed families and friends. In regards to mental health, one study found that positive interactions on social media can increase adolescent self-esteem and well-being. While some research shows that social media may cause depression or anxiety, it’s possible that symptoms associated with these conditions may cause people to use social media more and not the other way around. Social media is also beneficial for education in that it helps young people develop digital skills and increases participation. Using social media in the classroom is attractive to students and can motivate them to take part in the learning process.
Evidence of negative impacts on society as a result of social media use exist as well. While many agree that social media can spread information quickly, there is debate over the reliability of the information disseminated. A study conducted after the presidential election in 2016 found that the most popular fake news stories were shared more than popular reliable news stories. In addition, many people who see fake news stories report believing them. Social media use also negatively impacts the economy through decreased productivity at work resulting in revenue loss for employers. In one study, 64 percent of employees reported visiting non-work related websites every day. Of all the websites employees reported visiting, Facebook was number one. Education has also been negatively influenced by social media. Research among college women shows that high levels of social media use is associated with lower GPAs.
Negative impacts on mental health and physiology also exist. Research has shown that including strangers in your social networks can negatively impact self-esteem. Other research points to evidence that Facebook is negatively associated with well-being. In addition, the more time one spends on social media the more anxiety users experience. One study found that Generation Z is more susceptible to mental health issues which can be traced to phone and social media use. Furthermore, social media has been known to facilitate bullying in the form of cyberbullying, which can lead to emotional and psychological distress. Statistics show that thirty-four percent of students experience cyberbullying in their lifetimes. Social media use may also be changing our brains. A researcher at the UCLA Brain Mapping Center reports that it’s possible adolescents are learning to read likes and shares instead of facial expressions. Lastly, the quality of communication has been adversely affected by social media. Research has shown that the mere presence of a smartphone during a conversation decreases the conversation’s value. In addition, while communication through social media is today’s preferred method, it is not as influential as in-person communication.
Has social media done more good or harm for our society? Can the negative effects be reduced through moderating the amount of time spent on social media? Where do you stand?