It’s perhaps fair to say that most people now depend on social media for a large part of their day; this can mean checking Facebook updates, posting on Twitter, or just keeping up to date with a friend’s Flickr stream. Is our dependence on social media networks positive for our health, though, or is there a case to be made that over use of social media creates damaging levels of social isolation? Or are there more positive appeals to being connected to social media, in the sense of the community values and productivity it encourages?
Perhaps the strongest criticism that can be made of social media networks is that they deprive us of human interaction, and create virtual substitutes that still maintain emotional distance. Sherry Turkle has argued that social networks only provide the illusion of companionship, and that the kind of interactions we experience can’t replicate quality interactions; in this context, we can be in the same room as someone else, but still devoting our attention to our online networks.
The potentially damaging effects of this social media use can be tied to the fear that we are addicted without actually realising it – feelings of loneliness are exacerbated by being online too much, with people more willing to experience a sense of isolation if they feel that others around them are enjoying themselves much more. Indeed, Stephen Marche has suggested that social networks are full of contradictions, making users connected, but also more likely to be passive observers, rather than people seeking out genuine emotional relationships. Marche consequently argues that ‘passive consumption of Facebook also correlates to a marginal increase in depression’.
On the other hand, however, studies are suggesting that social media users are aware of the dangers of being online too much, and take a more active approach to their networks; rather than isolating themselves, they use local networks and business groups in order to socialise and develop a broader range of contacts. Annalise Rodriguez, examining the experiences of college students in America, argues that ‘most Americans actually weave digital activities and face-to-face activities together.’
This ability to view social media as an extension, or rather a complement to being more sociable does have its drawbacks, in the sense of allowing for passive consumption, but can be used more positively. Being able to use social media as a means to an end, rather than a substitute for meeting up with others and getting away from devices is crucial, particularly if you’re experiencing isolation. Too often, sites like Facebook create an artificial perception of others, and mean that you lose perspective on what’s important. Using social media selectively, and making the most of networks as a way to meet friends, or to learn more about opportunities in a local area, or even national and international support groups, can encourage a stronger sense of unity. In this context, like any other technology, social media ultimately is what you bring to it, rather than something that has a definite use value.