Social media has experienced a dramatic rise since the beginning of the 21st century. It is a common sight to see everyone on their devices even when coming together in-person. With over three billion people using the various social media platforms available, the way humans now interact with each other have been significantly altered. The varying forms of social media, including Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook, has enabled more people to stay connected bringing everyone closer together in an increasingly globalized world. Impact from an individual’s actions can be felt across the globe at the click of a button, be it negative or positive.
The rise of social media has been gradual, with developments in the industry even coming from the 20th century. Early versions of the internet and email were being developed in the 1960s and 1970s, even if it was not until decades later that social media resembling the platforms people see today would be first released. Platforms such as LinkedIn and MySpace started to begin being used by the general public in the early 21st century, whilst applications like Flickr introduced the concept of sharing photos online for others to see. By 2006, Facebook and Twitter began gaining prominence and remain popular until today, despite the fact that the use of Facebook has declined in recent years. More recently, a number of newer platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp, have become more in demand amongst users.
It is clear to see that social media has brought a number of positive effects to the lives of many. With virtual meetings made up of people from places all over the globe becoming commonplace, the world has become a lot more interconnected, brought closer together and barriers between people who may have never met without the internet and social media platforms have been torn down. The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly highlighted the importance of social media, with interaction between friends, colleagues and family members having to move online in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. Daily activities, such as going to work or school, have also been facilitated through online platforms such as Zoom and Google Meet and the absence of such platforms during such difficult times would have added salt into the wounds of an already incredibly difficult situation. It is undeniable many tasks have been made easier due to social media and society has benefited greatly.
Another clear benefit that has arisen due to the presence of social media platforms would be the ability of firms to conduct business. Social media has enabled many businesses to build their brand and increase interaction between potential customers, which in turn would lead to increased business growth. In today’s business environment, for a business to reach those that may be interested in their product, it is not required for them to invest a large amount of capital in advertising since their presence of social media will enable them to advertise at a much cheaper cost. Social media platforms have even introduced business tools to their applications in order to encourage and support the growth of businesses, particularly those that are trying to establish themselves in the market. The increase in businesses in the market has led to increased prosperity in many places throughout the world and social media can be credited for playing a part in that, especially in urbanized areas.
As the positive impact of social media for businesses is clear to see, many governments across the world have tried to take advantage of the social media platforms available paying social media influencers to promote policies in order to favourably influence public opinion. In Indonesia, it has been established that the central government has spent at least US$6.1 million on the services of key figures that have significant influence. The government has looked to these figures in order to promote key sectors such as tourism, instead of using older and more traditional techniques such as TV advertisements or promotional billboards. In addition to the Indonesian government, the Pakistani government has also looked to rebuild the image of their country as a place for tourists from all over the world to come and visit by giving free tours to YouTuber’s with a significant following. Well-known YouTube vloggers such as Haley Takes on The World and Indigo Traveller have all had their travel expenses paid for by the government of Pakistan in order for them to visit the country and give a review of their experience in the nation.
Whilst it can be seen that there are many benefits to the presence of social media, there are also a number of negative impacts which have been felt by society. As the generation that has grown up with social media, the youth of today have experienced the effects of social media first-hand. Social media has led to many young people experiencing mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. In many cases, this rise of mental health issues has occurred due to fear of societal judgement and an excessive consumption of information and content. Many young people have become fixated on the image they create through social media, which has also led to them regularly comparing themselves to their peers and other individuals. Many schools, universities and other institutions have reported more instances of bullying and problems that arose as a result of matters that originated from online platforms.
Aside from that, much of the younger generation also have sleeping problems due to the presence of social media, with research suggesting that the link between high screen time and poorer sleep patterns are particularly significant. It has been reported that in the USA, 40% of teenagers use a mobile device around 5 minutes before they go to sleep. This trend continues outside the borders of the USA as well, with a study in the UK suggesting that up to 45% of young people check their phones after they go to bed. Many experts have warned that young people have been unable to concentrate on their tasks and responsibilities the following day, as a result of poor sleep habits and not getting enough rest.
Much of these poor sleeping habits that can be found within young people have been attributed to the addictive nature of social media. Scientists have also proven that human beings release dopamine, the hormone that is triggered when an individual experiences happiness, when they receive positive feedback on social media. The craving for positive feedback has contributed to many young people constantly checking their phones for notifications, which has caused much of the youth to spend more time online. Studies have also shown that as many as a third of young people wake up in the middle of the night to check their mobile devices, with some young people even using it as a way to escape from their real lives.
Due to the huge online presence of the youth on social media, activism has also found another channel. Although traditional forms of activism such as gathering and protesting on the streets are still commonplace today, many young people have opted to use social media in order to regularly voice their opinions and garner support for movements they passionately believe in. Whilst on the surface the idea of more people becoming active and paying attention to the issues that affect society is a good thing, it has also led to a number of unwanted negative impacts that society and countries around the world have had to deal with. Social media has enabled people to select what they wish to know more about, which has led to the rise of selective exposure. On the contrary to television and traditional media, people are only exposed to what they wish to see and not a whole variety of viewpoints and other ideas that may not be in line with their own. As a result, many societies have become polarized, divided and unable to come together, sometimes till the point where they cannot believe any information that supposedly comes from the ‘opposing side’.
The recent presidential election in the USA between former Vice-President Joe Biden and incumbent President Donald Trump is a perfect example of how social media can contribute to the division of a particular society. Many individuals on both sides are unable to recognize the pros or achievements of the opposition or understand an alternative point of view which has sewn the seeds of increased polarization. The online filter bubbles agree with the psychological theory of confirmation bias, which stipulates that individuals are more likely to agree with viewpoints that are already in line with what they already believe in. The presence of social media has only fuelled political polarization, with sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram becoming mediums for intense and, most of the time, unhealthy political argument. Social media has been used in order to rally people by amplifying emotional messages, breeding intensified tribalism in sometimes already divided societies. In the case of the USA, an individual’s viewpoints will fall along the lines of Democrat or Republican and liberal or conservative, instead of a critical perspective to any policy or action undertaken by any side.
In essence, social media has had significant influence on the way society is shaped today all over the world. Whilst people have become more interconnected and closer together as a result, social media has also exposed some of society’s existing frailties. In order to use social media to society’s greatest advantage, it is imperative that society learns how to improve on the significant steps that it has already taken to come thus far. As a relatively new phenomenon in the grand scheme of things, societies will need to find new ways to adapt and respond to the challenges that have arisen due to the prominence of social media in society.
The human race will get there as always, it just needs time.
Article By: Eriq Ihsan Moeloek