The average person will spend more than five years of their lives on social media but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The average person will spend more than five years of their lives on social media but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Is social media really all that bad?

AT this festive time of year when social media traffic increases exponentially, it seems pertinent to ask, is it ruining our lives?

According to some former Facebook executives, the answer is a resounding "yes".

Ex-vice-president for user growth at Facebook, Chamath Palihapitiya recently said: "The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no co-operation, misinformation, mistrust."

He added: "This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It (social media) is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other."

Palihapitiya feels so strongly, he no longer uses social media and forbids his children from engaging, stating "they're not allowed to use that shit".

It's not only Palihapitya criticising the hand that once fed him either. Only a day earlier, the co-founder of Napster and FB's founding president, Sean Parker, condemned the way the company "exploits a vulnerability in human psychology… (creating a) social-validation feedback loop".

He said that hopes of addicting people to social media were present in the networks from the very beginning.

"… It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other… It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains."

Despite all this naysaying, a report by the Australian Psychological Society found that the vast majority of adults and teens experienced social media as a positive part of their lives.

David Stuart

Unsurprisingly, high use of social media and technology was found to have a negative impact on young people's self-esteem.

The drive to seek "likes" and thus approval often governs online habits. Seeking instant gratification and a sense of "belonging", even to an absent community, can be a heady cocktail - for people of all ages.

This is exactly the human vulnerability to which Parker refers - the "social-validation feedback loop".

And it can be addictive.

But consider this, every minute spent on social media "connecting" means real-world communication is likely not occurring.

A study done by Mediakix earlier this year found that the average person will spend around five years and four months of their lives on social media.

To put that in perspective, they likened this to walking your dog 93,000 times or travelling to the moon and back 32 times.

The only activity on which more time was being spent is watching TV (seven years and eight months). We spend around three years and five months eating and drinking and a year and three months socialising.

But isn't social media meant to be just that, a form of socialising?

For most people, this is exactly how it functions. But Palihapitiya is correct, it's also changed the way we behave with and perceive each other - locally and globally.

Facebook has been accused of interfering with everything from elections to humanitarian crises (the Rohingya people, for example), recruiting for various white nationalist hate groups and ISIS, to circulating fake and damaging news.

So bad has it become, Facebook has been dubbed "Fakebook".

Far from offering more opportunities for real world interaction, networks like Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (all owned by Facebook) have become "anti-social media".

We see and read examples of this all this time - couples and families out together in public, but ignoring each other as they're lost in the private world of their phones.

People texting, uploading selfies, pictures from their holidays, curating their lives for others to share and comment upon. Employees and bosses secretly accessing their social media accounts during work hours/breaks so as not to miss out on what might have happened in the brief time they were absent, thus affecting productivity and workplace interactions.

Never mind the erosion of civic behaviour marked by trolls, abusers, bullies and all those other lowlifes the medium attracts.

But... and it's a big but... is social media really all that bad? Isn't it dependent on the user and the intentions they hold? How we take responsibility for our usage, connections, likes and feeds?

Isn't there a degree to which we create the world we live in - real and cyber?

And what about those with chronic illness, disabilities, who work from home/at a distance etc.? For them, social media is a lifeline. It connects them to a wider world.

At Christmas, this is also the case. For those without family or friends to share the day with - for a range of reasons - Facebook particularly sprinkles a bit of magic dust, reminding them they aren't alone; that there are those out there who genuinely care and want to wish them the best for the season and always.

Just as I want to take this opportunity to do the same to each and every one of you.

Whether your Christmas experience is real world or online, I really hope it's a happy one.

Dr Karen Brooks is an honorary senior research fellow (IASH) at the University of Queensland.

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