Most people understand how social media can be beneficial to its users. However, there is a lot of misunderstanding or misinformation regarding its detrimental effects and elements. In this article, we will look into it in more depth to understand how social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and so on impact people’s lives, and why people use it in the first place.
While seemingly more and more people get tired of or disillusioned with using social media, it undeniably has its benefits. You can find and spread information, market or find products and services, build social or business networks easier, communicate with people from all over the world, and stay in touch with friends and loved ones.
But there is a darker side, and people are capable of misusing or abusing anything, even social networks.
The Drawback of Social Media
In many cases, people use social media to deal with their painful unresolved emotions, often without even knowing it. In those scenarios, social media becomes a negative coping mechanism or even an addiction.
A lot of people use social media just to manage their chronic loneliness. For example, many watch YouTube videos or follow someone on social media just to feel connection. YouTube personalities, and social media personalities in general, become their virtual “buddies.”
It is similar to what people feel when they become emotionally attached to a character from a movie or a TV show. On social media the “bond” is even stronger because it’s a real person. Well, as real as a social media personality can be—some are more fake and manipulative than others.
However, since it’s not a real bond, the emotions are artificial instead of authentic. Think watching webcam pornography versus having sex with a person you love. By getting emotionally overly attached to fake personas and virtual “friends,” the individual lives in a fantasyland where they are not lonely, while deep down they actually feel miserable and isolated.
Social media is a wonderful place for people with low self-esteem. You can publish meticulously crafted posts and get likes and heart symbols. This makes you feel significant, liked, and loved. On the Internet, you can be whatever you want.
Moreover, you can compare yourself to others and feel that you are better—or worse—than them. Here, the more likes and followers you have, the better you are as a human being. No actual virtue or objective evaluation required. The more likes and other forms of approval, the better you feel about yourself. You don’t even have to actually do any introspection, healing, or self-improvement, which can be quite painful and challenging. You just post, get validation, and feel better.
But what happens when you don’t post, or when you don’t receive the amount of likes that is necessary to regulate your shaky sense of self-esteem? And when is it enough? Where does it all lead? How does it translate into the real world and interacting with real people?
Very few people can interpret information objectively and accurately. Oftentimes it is quite impossible to know the truth based on an article, video, or even a study. A lack of critical thinking skills is a real problem, just like a lack of objectively accurate information is.
Most people have a very vague or skewed map of reality. This combined with poor reasoning and conceptualizing skills causes them to be susceptible to misinformation, propaganda—and ultimately to manipulation.
In many cases, people accept or deny information based on emotion, not on facts and reason. Again, for many, the more popular, entertaining, and sparkly a piece of content is, the “more true” (i.e., more reliable) or better it is. And so the validity and usefulness of the information—or the credibility of a person—is determined here as if it’s a popularity contest.
All of it leads to many horrible yet popular ideas having more weight than they actually have because people like the packaging or the person(a) behind it. And, correspondingly, great concepts are dismissed as false or useless just because they don’t make you feel good or because you dislike certain elements of the message or the messenger.
Furthermore, these days everyone can create a YouTube channel or a blog, and since popularity is in many ways equal to credibility and competency, potentially anyone can present themselves as an authority (in a good sense of the word). And when everyone is an authority, then nobody is an authority. You don’t have to actually know things and be competent; you just have to talk about them and be popular. And you can even artificially increase your numbers by buying things like subscribers, followers, likes, and views.
And hey, if you dislike something or someone you can always dismiss or discredit them by saying it’s fake, or call them names, or for no valid reason at all—because in your head your “expertise” is as valid as anyone else’s or more, and what matters is your emotions and the identity that you strongly associate with your ideas.
Validation for beliefs and morals
Many people use social media in order to receive intellectual and moral validation. People like that only seek information that confirms or reinforces what they already believe. Or they interpret the information so that it seemingly supports their pre-existing beliefs. Or they dismiss the information that contradicts their current beliefs. We have terms for that: selective exposure, confirmation bias, reinforcement theory, cognitive dissonance, echo chamber, and so on.
On social media, a person can always find people who will agree with them, no matter how preposterous or even harmful their beliefs and behaviors are. You can find a virtual space for anybody and anything, even trolls, abusers, enablers, human traffickers, or pedophiles. The internet is full of communities for bad ideas and toxic behaviors.
Not only that, social media (e.g., Facebook) is more likely to show you information that they know you already like and hide what doesn’t fit. Indeed, these businesses have spent a lot of time and money for just this reason. For instance, if you have a certain political view or a certain interest, you will be shown information that caters to your beliefs, based on your digital footprints they’ve observed and collected. Which will reinforce your beliefs even further, keeping you from having a well-rounded worldview.
Unresolved, misdirected anger
All of us have probably encountered this, or even participated in it ourselves. Most people carry a lot of hurt and unresolved anger at their primary perpetrators, be it family members, teachers, priests, bullies, and so on. Social media is a safe space where they can unconsciously or even consciously and deliberately act all of it out on their “enemies.”
Indeed, we have trolls, people fighting with each other in the comment section, people trying to hurt others by leaving nasty comments, stalking, slandering, falsely discrediting, sabotaging, lying, manipulating, dominating, bullying, seeking more social power and influence, et cetera.
A person who has a strong sense of self and can regulate their emotions easily doesn’t feel an urge to do these things. But many people you see participating on social media don’t have that. So they act out their trauma and insecurities by attacking or hurting others, picking fights, ganging up on others, trying to be perceived as an authority or a moral beacon when they are not, silencing others, and trolling.
And since you can find validation for anything you think or do, you can always rationalize your harmful behavior instead of doing some self-work and becoming a better person.
Procrastination and dissociation
So many of us use social media to simply kill time and to escape from reality, be it watching YouTube videos or browsing Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram every 5 minutes. A lot of people spend hours doing just that, and in an addictive fashion.
Some of it is simply trying to postpone something unpleasant (a term paper, cleaning, learning). Another element is running away from painful feelings and thoughts that come up when you are in the moment. There’s also an aspect of feeling up-to-date, of not feeling “left behind.” You have to know what others are doing, what is going on, what’s “lit” and “woke.”
You can also passively observe your feed and think about how unfair the world is to you because maybe somebody is doing better than you, or has something you want, or is more popular, or is wrong. Then you can feel more discouraged from working on yourself, or more justified in feeling angry and bitter, which then can lead you to acting out (see the previous section on misdirected anger).
Like many things, social media is just a tool. In itself, it is neither good nor bad. It’s how we use it. Just like a car: we can use it to get from point A to point B, to race, to observe it, to display it as a status symbol, to run away, to abduct a person, or to kill someone.
So it is inaccurate to say that social media causes depression, or keeps us from connecting with each other in real life, or something similar. Just like cars or fast food or weapons don’t kill people. Social media is inanimate. It doesn’t do anything. It’s people using it.
If you tend to avoid working on yourself, then you will use certain tools to manage inner pain and escape reality. Drugs, casual sex, TV, food—anything really can be used to escape reality. You will also be susceptible to people manipulating you into buying whatever crap they are selling (bad ideas, ineffective solutions to your problems, fake happiness, an ideology, an agenda, a false escape from pain, a sense of importance, love, belonging, or being right and good).
And if you are a relatively resolved, balanced, aware, and mentally strong individual, you will be able to be happy, functional, and socially healthy even with social media at your disposal. Just like you would around drugs, sex, TV, guns, video games, or food.
It is your choice how you use it. Whatever the case may be, it is always useful to know the motives, reasons, and goals behind your actions, no matter what you do in life. If you are dissatisfied with how you use social media, you can change that, today.
For more on these and other topics, check out the author’s books: Human Development and Trauma: How Childhood Shapes Us into Who We Are as Adults and Self-Work Starter Kit.