Is it time to leave social media?

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Is it time to leave social media?


Social media is the place where you can find everything – for example, a list of old forgotten words or tweets from the US president. But there is research linking social media to depression and loneliness. So is it time to leave?

Michael Harris says Yes. He is the author of two national bestsellers, Solitude and The End of Absence. Harris lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his husband.

Charlotte Lydia Riley says No. She is a historian of 20th-century Britain at the University of Southampton. Charlotte spends too much of her time on Twitter complaining about her long journey to work and politics, and arguing about her pop-culture. She also likes selfies.

Michael - Yes: I could never say we should stop social media. We have had it for thousands of years. Before Facebook we wrote on the walls of ancient Rome. Before that, we wrote on the walls of caves. We use all technology to find larger and larger social groups and that’s fine. But fast-food corporations in the 20th century used our desires for sugar and fat, and tech corporations in the 21st century use our desire for social groups. We can’t think that McDonald’s makes us healthier, and we can’t think that Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram make our social lives healthier.

We should think carefully about how much we desire social media. I may want social connections as soon as I wake up but that desire takes me away from solitude, from being alone. And why should we need solitude? Because if we don’t sometimes turn off our mobiles and computers, we will not have rich inner lives. And then, we won’t be much good to all those friends and followers.

Charlotte - No: As you say, social media is just a way of communicating. Worries about ‘unhealthy’ social media are about who we are as humans: our need to show off and compare ourselves to other people, our need for new things and our short attention spans. This isn’t new.

The idea that social media stops our rich inner life is interesting. People never say that about someone who is always reading a book. But surely reading is not active like connecting with people across the world. Our lives are richer when we contact people and hear ideas.

Solitude is a lovely word for isolation and boredom. Sure, sometimes we all need to switch off. A mother of young children doesn’t have much time for solitude and for her rich inner life but maybe social media can help her and be an escape.

Michael - Yes: Reading a book is very different from contacts online. Book reading makes us smaller as we take on the experience of characters. The self becomes quiet. But social media makes us more powerful on social media. So social media is not ‘just’ a way of communicating. It depends on how we use communication. Social media is there to get our attention and make money from it. It is not there to make us better people or make our relationships better. Positive social communication is bad business for social media. Angry talk is better business for Silicon Valley.

You said solitude is a word for isolation and boredom but I disagree. Solitude is, as you say, often a special way of being, and where we can have a richer inner life. I think it’s loneliness, not solitude, that leads to isolation and boredom. And we can switch off and not be lonely – it just needs practice.

Charlotte - No: Clearly social media has positive effects for society and individuals. Different social media have different uses. Facebook might be a place for contacting family who live far away. Instagram gives us nice pictures of breakfast, sunsets, dogs, and clothes. And Twitter has changed academic life.

Because Twitter is a place where you can find people talking about everything. And academics love to talk. On Twitter, you can find people who are really, really interested in 18th-century religion, gender in novels, or scientific theories. An amateur can talk to a famous professor. It is a place for questions, advice, and help, for sharing lecture notes, checking page references, recommending cafés near archives, or fixes to programming bugs. And it is a place where people in academic life are equal.

Michael - Yes: I wonder if ‘academic Twitter’ is a special case. Most academics I know understand that a rude word could ruin their career. So you have a polite place for communication. But most of Twitter is not like that.

The more powerful academic may have a team of followers that argue against people who disagree with him or her. This may be social communication but it’s not friendly or polite.

Charlotte - No: Oh, yes, academic Twitter can be as angry as other online communication. Academics can be cruel and it also values reputation and performance.

Of course, Twitter and other forms of social media have hierarchies. But so does the world. And at least this is an alternative place, where the world has a different order. Twitter is still, for many people, a supportive and positive place because it is about human kindness and generosity. We might meet boring people on social media and people who want to use it for threats. But it also helps us make connections with people all across the world.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)