The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly of Social Media

Let’s take two people: One has 500 friends on Facebook, but doesn’t really feel comfortable talking to any of them in real life. The other also has 500 friends and feels comfortable really talking to a handful of them.

Both of these people are heavy social media users, but are either of these people using social media in a healthy way? Are neither of these people using social media in a healthy way?

Maybe the test is whether social media is used as a substitute for direct face-to-face human communication, or whether it is used as a supplement to direct communication.

I wonder if there was this same dialogue when telephones were first introduced. Did people wonder if phones would replace human contact? Do you feel you call your daughter or friend instead of meeting with them face-to-face? Or do you find that having a phone only increases the opportunities you have to talk to them?

Technology keeps moving forward. There are newer and newer ways to interact. Many of them—like cell phones and Twitter—become widely popular, even in vastly different cultures and countries. They must be fulfilling some basic human need.

Is social media like a drug, like Soma in Brave New World? It’s certainly easy to become addicted to it. Maybe it causes us to feel less need for personal, meaningful, connections.

Or is social media like an amplifier that draws out more of people’s natural tendencies? Does a lonely girl create a Tumblr to reach out to people she otherwise would feel she could not approach or connect with? Does a normally social boy have a number of close friends with whom he interacts on a face-to-face basis, and then in addition, have a much larger group of Facebook friends who further his social reach? Again, is social media used as a substitute for direct communication or as a supplement?

The next question to ask is does social media cause unhealthy behavior? Or a related question--does it cause people who would engage in unhealthy behaviors anyways, to do it in a more severe way?

The concept of self harm, specifically non-suicidal self-injury, has always been of great interest to me. Self harm can consist of (but is not restricted to) cutting, bruising, and scratching oneself to feel more physically in control when dealing with a great emotional struggle. Recently, I’ve been conducting an independent research study based on the current thoughts and theories in the field on whether the use of social media, Twitter in particular, causes the incidence of non-suicidal self-injury to increase.

A simple search of “self harm” on social media, such as Twitter, will turn up results that mainly fall into one of two categories: groups glorifying self harm and groups aiding self harm advocacy.

The social media groups glorifying self harm seem to view self harm as almost a poetic act; they post photos and tweet about the “beautiful pain” they feel or the intense loneliness they feel that make them “more poetically tragic” than those around them. These groups thrive off an “us against them” mindset that they in turn propagate. On the other hand, advocacy groups are equally numerous, if not more so, on sites such as Twitter. These accounts promote dialogue and healing, often connecting volunteers and people who had formerly struggled with self harm with those who are currently trying to stop and seek treatment. Is social media a net benefit here? Or is it doing much more harm than good in this situation?

One of the more bizarre and alarming phenomenons I’ve come across in my readings is the “suicide clubs” in Japan. These suicide clubs start with people finding each other online. They then get together in person, often in one of the member’s apartments, and commit suicide together. They most often use carbon monoxide, a way to get rosy lips and flushed cheeks—a beautiful death. With these suicide clubs, finally these people are not alone, though their companionship is only in death. As far as I know, such a thing has yet to be found in any other country.

The question has to be asked: Would these people be committing suicide if the technology wasn’t there to easily bring these people together? On the flip side, you now have people who are suicidal actually talking to people. Can we somehow use this to dissuade people from choosing to end their lives?

I don’t have all the answers. Rather, I just have a lot of questions. I don’t think we can ask whether social media is simply “good” or “bad.” We’re beyond that point. Social media is here. It’s pervasive.

Instead, we have to start asking a different question: How can we use social media for good? How can we understand and mitigate its possible negative affects?

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