BY GURLEEN BAJWA
To say that social media has become the villain of modern-day technological advancement is not an exaggeration. Sometimes it’s the type of straightforward villain who is sinister and foreboding, but other times it’s the butt of the joke that everyone makes. However, what cannot be dismissed is the tremendous impact it has had, regardless of being a relatively new type of communication and technology. The effects of social media on the human mind and psyche have been overwritten. That’s not to say that it’s all negative. Even though it might appear that way, social media definitely has its benefits. It has made it ridiculously easy to reach large audiences, build relationships and remain connected to those in our lives. These benefits don’t get discussed much because they are being weighed against negatives such as cultism, addiction, and depression. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Life exists outside our handheld devices—but social media can trick us into believing it doesn’t. This leads to one of social media’s primary fallacies: the easiness with which one can slip into living vicariously. But while some may be attempting to live vicariously through friends/celebrities/public personas—others will envy them instead. After all, the very nature of the type of data shared socially is impressive. No one would share that they were rejected from their dream job, but they would share that they went skiing in Whistler. Our online profiles are hardly an accurate portrayal of our entire lives, but rather just the highlights. However, that is so easily forgettable that the term FOMO, which stands for “Fear of Missing Out” was coined to describe the perspective of outsiders looking in. Not to mention that because data sharing has become so quick, it’s not difficult to start to feel forgettable and unremarkable in the grand scheme of things. These factors combine to lead to deep dissatisfaction and unfulfillment in our own experiences and lifestyle; it creates a false narrative in our own minds that amplifies the negatives in our lives and downplays the positives. Hence, we end up in a false world where we are much unhappier than we actually are.
The harms of a distorted worldview, where we think everyone is better off than us or happier than us, are at least contained to only one person and not damaging overall society. However, no one lives in a vacuum online. Social media primarily exists on a positive feedback loop—what we like, retweet, share, and post informs the algorithm and determines what we see. This means that opinions (be it in politics, health, religion, etc.) can be formed entirely, influenced, and confirmed online; it’s a slippery slope to cultism. This is why conspiracy theories that sound ridiculous but have die-hard followers abound on the digital medium and can have real-life consequences. For instance, “pizza gate,” a theory that went viral in the USA in 2016 around the presidential election. Harassment and death threats lead to a man shooting up a restaurant, believing that the theory spread online was true, having had his own opinions affirmed and encouraged.
Several chronic mental health problems could be triggered too by social media. Sometimes they can go under the radar for being not too noticeable visually. An obsession with external validation can last a lifetime, influencing both professional and personal relationships. This addiction to the digital medium arises primarily because social media is a very passive and mind-numbing activity, and it is endless and thoughtless, requiring little cognitive functioning. All of these factors also allow it to serve as a distraction from life, which can amplify existing depression due to the isolation of cutting oneself off from reality and choosing to exist virtually.
The reason why social media has such an impact on our mental health is simply that we allow it. It became integrated into our lives at one point or another, no matter how much we may have avoided it. Maybe a Linkedin account was needed for a job. Maybe the class project is being done over Facebook. Many of us make social media accounts not because we want to share parts of our lives but because it’s integrated into our lives—school, jobs, family—thus impossible to detach from completely. But perhaps it is essential to realize that social media, as described by Akram and Kumar in their paper, A Study on Positive and Negative Effects of Social Media on society, is nothing more than “a web-based form of data communication.” It, for lack of better words, does not exist.