“Your life exists outside of television and likes, and Instagram. Engage the world.”
Jon Stewart snapped these words out in a recent interview that he did with David Axelrod. His point is one that resonated with me. Not only because he’s Jon Stewart and I believe most Americans miss him dearly as of late with the current Turdnado that is the 2016 election. No, I wanted to start with this quote because of the point that Stewart was making. You and the world around you are more than social media.
Social media and its impact on the way we live our lives is becoming more pronounced. So much that it has gained the attention of the scientific community. A smorgasbord of studies have been published on the topic ranging from the obvious – stalking your ex on Facebook can cause depression – to more subtle aspects like how social media impacts our perception of reality. So many studies, that one day I decided to conduct an experiment and give up social media for one month, the ol’ cold turkey style. During this time, I gained a better perspective on the good and the bad of social media and what science has to tell us about its impact on our lives.
During the first few days of ostracizing social media from my life, I learned one major lesson – social media is super f**king creepy. I received emails from Instagram and Facebook asking me where I was and taunting me with people that had started to follow me or ‘liked’ my posts. It seemed as though social media had become so intertwined in my life that leaving it was like breaking up with someone. After this brief period, I actually started to miss social media, and for good reason: these websites are the single easiest way to stay connected to the world, both near and far.
One important way social media influences how people communicate with each other, is the use of social media to mobilize people for social movements. In a study published in 2013 in the Journal of American Behavioral Scientists, author Sebastian Valenzuela investigated how social media influences political activism. In this study, they investigated the connection between social media use and citizen protest behaviors in obtaining information, expressing opinions, and activism (finding a cause and mobilizing via the use of social media). To do this, in 2011 the authors collected data on multiple massive demonstrations in Chile.
They conducted surveys in a few of the country’s largest cities and asked participants a range of questions including: how often they use social media, if they use social media for political purposes, and what their feelings are towards the current government. They found that folks that use social media to express their feelings had a positive relationship with political activism. These results were considered incredibly shocking to anyone that has never, ever been on Facebook.
The authors speculate that social media will continue to act as a catalyst for more political movements because before now, people were not so highly connected to each other. Clearly, social media can have a profound effect on how people communicate and organize, which can be a really positive thing… sometimes.
Over the remaining weeks of my purge from the digital world, I started to feel good about it. No longer did I feel the need to check my phone constantly for what folks were posting on Facebook, but rather I used my free time for more productive things, like Pokemon Go. Okay, maybe that’s not the best use of my spare time, but I did feel better, which leads to the dark side of social media (cue scary music).
Some research has focused on the negative consequences of social media, on our perception of ourselves and the world around us. It has been noted that social media can be rather addicting, with one study even reporting that it is more addicting than cigarettes. Social media use has also been linked to anxiety and depression. These types of alarming patterns have led researchers to ask if social media is altering the way we view reality.
One example of this is how people view the legitimacy of their own opinions when voiced using social media. A group of researchers have coined a phrase known as ‘Selective Exposure’. In essence, people can selectively filter information they receive based on what websites they go to, who they’re friends with, and things they have ‘liked’. Because of this, researchers like Paul Resnick and his collaborators think these filters can isolate people in their own ‘information bubble’ which can result in inaccurate beliefs. People alter the world around them such that it reflects the world they want to exist, but not the world that actually exist.
After my month long hiatus from social media I can say I am happy to be back, but with a twist. Taking time off of social media gave me perspective on both the good and the bad of websites like Facebook or Instagram, and I gained an appreciation for how being ultra connected to people can be a double edged sword. At the end of the day, it’s a wonderful way to be connected with family and friends, but it’s important to keep these virtual connections in check. No website will ever replace real interactions with people around you, so do as Jon Stewart suggested and “Engage the world.”
If you’re super annoyed with social media or are just curious about ways to keep a healthy amount of social media in your life, here’s a good website:
|Nick Batora is a Ph.D graduate student in the Department of Genetics at the University of Georgia. He also is a plant biologist, enjoys hiking, and once received a gold ribbon in a hip-hop dance competition in Detroit, Michigan. He is also lead organizer for the Athens Science Café. For more information you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. More from Nick Batora.|