Social media can be toxic, but some argue it isn’t as bad as we thought

Click to play video: 'The benefits of social media'
The benefits of social media
WATCH: The benefits of social media – Nov 1, 2019

Much has been said about the potential negative impacts of social media — especially for young people.

It’s been called addictive, anxiety-inducing and dangerous. In fact, a study recently conducted in the Montreal area reported a link between spending “too much time” on social media or watching television and increased symptoms of depression among teens.

But now, in an effort to shed light on the positive aspects of social media, experts are urging the public to reconsider.

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Amy Orben, a college research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is one of those experts. In a recent interview with Scientific American, she said the negative headlines about social media seemed sensationalist — so she set out to disprove them.

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She analyzed data from numerous studies about social media use and while going through one linking increases in depression and suicide to screen time, she found what she was looking for.

“I figured out that tweaks to the data analysis caused major changes to the study results,” Orben said in the interview. “The effects were actually tiny.”

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In May, Orben published some of her own research on the matter with two other researchers. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, found that technology was no worse for teenagers’ well-being than eating potatoes.

“We found that social media use is not, in and of itself, a strong predictor of life satisfaction across the adolescent population,” researchers said.

“With the unknowns of social media effects still substantially outnumbering the knowns, it is critical that independent scientists, policymakers, and industry researchers cooperate more closely.”

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“Doing so will provide parents and policymakers with the reliable insights they need on a topic most often characterized by unfounded media hype.”

Julie Smith agrees with Orben’s findings. She’s a media literacy expert and a professor of communications at Webster University in Missouri.

“I tend to view social media as a tool. It all depends on how it’s used,” she said. “It all depends on how the platforms are used and what the intentions are.”

“You can build things with a hammer, and (you) can destroy things with a hammer.”

Smith largely blames the news media for the bad reputation pinned to social media.

“Fear is such a great motivator and a great seller,” she said. “People keep watching the news to find out what the next terrible thing is going to be … So we portray social media as something terrible.”

In Smith’s opinion, this does social media a disservice. “We’re not talking about the positives” — of which there are many, Smith said.

The benefits of social media

Smith asked her students how they feel about social media. While some responses were about the bad — like an “inability to determine what’s real and what isn’t” and “the devaluing of some experiences if they aren’t considered post-worthy” — many were about the good.

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Among them, students said social media allows them to connect with people “from all over the world” based on shared niche interests, and that it offers “a real chance” for developing entrepreneurial skills.

“Growing up in this world, they are very aware of the pros and cons,” Smith said.

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Mom behind blue bucket Facebook post overwhelmed by global reaction

Smith acknowledges that social media can have a dark side, but she believes there are as many positives — if not more.

“Think of all the jobs that have been created by these platforms that didn’t exist 10 years ago,” she said.

She always encourages her students to use social media as a way to figure out who they are and what they want from the world.

“I tell my students (to) find people who have their dream job … Follow them and follow who they follow,” Smith said. “It’s a way for people to learn about what’s happening in various industries before they even get out of school.”

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According to Diane Pacom, the vast amount of information at our fingertips is extremely powerful, and it can be used for good or bad. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Ottawa, and she believes a critical lens is what will make a difference.

“Young people aren’t created equal,” she said.

“Some aren’t as critical as they should be … They’re the ones who are more vulnerable.”

How to teach media literacy

Pacom said young people should be taught what it means to be a good “digital citizen” from the outset.

In her view, it requires “a lucidity, a perspective which is there for a common good” and a “knowledge of the different value systems that exist” within the online universe.

“It’s the idea of making young people aware of the dangers, but not only the dangers,” she said. “Show them the negative and positive aspects … exactly the same as regular citizens.”

In teaching youth about media literacy, Smith focuses on coaching instead of preaching.

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“They know so much more about it than we do anyway,” she said.

“Let’s start coaching them on correct ways to build a profile; correct ways to share their skills and talents; correct ways to curate the people you’re following and who’s following you.”

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She also believes it’s crucial to teach people not only how to use social media, “but how social media is using them.”

“On a lot of free websites … they’re not the customer, they’re the product being sold,” she said. “I’m not sure they understand that.”

“The biggest highway in (your city) has terrible parts and it has easy parts. It’s a part of life. You have to learn to deal with the traffic no matter what.”

The need for nuance

When it comes to discussions about social media in the media and beyond, Jenna Jacobson said context and nuance are critical.

“There’s some research that points to the negative sides of social media … but there needs to be a focus on the context and the content,” said Jacobson, an assistant professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management in Toronto.

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“Everyday, there are new changes … Rather than a net positive or a net negative, I think it’s more interesting to see how individuals are using the platforms, the governance of the platforms.”

She argues that media literacy is necessary for all generations — not just young people. “We need to understand the terms and conditions, the privacy policies, the algorithms, the black box practices that we don’t talk enough about,” she said.

But Jacobson also advocates for accountability on the part of individual social media platforms.

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“Being able to determine what is a fake social media account, being able … to adjust our privacy settings, being able to understand that we’re not seeing all sides, we’re not seeing the full picture based on our friend’s posts, that there’s algorithms at play,” she said.

“We are now starting to look to the platforms to say, ‘there needs to be changes.'”

— With files from the Canadian Press

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