Is social media bad for us?

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Is social media bad for us?

Meredith L Patterson and Deanna Zandt discuss the question:


Jason Howle under a Creative Commons Licence

Meredith - yes


YES: Meredith L Patterson studies security. She lives in Brussels, Belgium.

It’s difficult to answer a question like this because people often think that if a thing is bad for us, then it cannot be good, and if a thing is good for us, it cannot be bad. Social media is good for us because it brings people together in any place and at any time.

The internet also takes away our feelings about our actions there. In a room or on a street, we have an idea of how far our voices go, but one tweet can fly around the world before its author gets off her plane, as happened to Justine Sacco. The bad it does is difficult to see. It’s the bad it does to non-mainstream subcultures. Autistic culture and hacker culture are two subcultures I am part of. They have ways of communicating different from white Western mainstream culture. There is also pressure from mainstream culture for them to give up their own ways and take up the mainstream ones. Social-media technology is changing from mostly text-based messaging to more and more real-time messaging (such as Periscope). Many autistic users will find that this shows how different they are from other people. I am happy about changes like this but we must think about them carefully.

Deanna - no


NO: Deanna Zandt works at Lux Digital, based in New York. Her work looks at humanity, technology and justice.

Certainly there are problems with the way angry people use social media. But I have not much sympathy for Justine Sacco. She is a communications professional and works in the media. I have more sympathy for everyday people who are run off the internet for their everyday opinions and experiences - for example, the teacher in Arizona who had to hide after talking about her support for the non-profit organization Planned Parenthood.

The real problem is if it’s possible to use social media and find new ways to create empathy and, as Sam Gregory of says, solidarity. Humans aren’t made for text-only communication. We all know that body language and the way we speak affects how we receive information.

Studies have shown that voice and body language move messages up to higher emotional parts of our brains. Text-only communication goes straight to the part of the fight-or-flight centre in the brain. So, if we don’t like a tweet, our brains think animals are chasing us and we want to fight or run away.

So I think we need ways of using feelings with digital literacy skills and education. I agree with your idea about non-mainstream communities suffering. I’m interested in finding ways of developing emotional communication online.

Meredith - yes

In many ways we agree. But I’m doubtful about your idea of solidarity. Solidarity can be on one or two sides of an argument. The easiest way to show solidarity with one side is to attack people on the other side. There have been angry groups throughout history, but social media makes it possible to lower the cost and increase the numbers of people involved in a kind of ‘solidarity’. This is the opposite of the empathy we both want.

Your point about the fight-or-flight centre in the brain is important, especially as it creates strong groups who disagree. All groups want their ideas to be seen as the right way to think and act. Other groups disagree. For real empathy we need to understand others.

When 98.4 per cent of people have an idea that only comes from their own experience, is it possible to understand others? In this I agree with you and Sam Gregory, but I am not so optimistic.

Deanna - no

I really understand this idea of solidarity – it’s very important to look at this from the point of view of in- and out-groups. I think solidarity continues to play a role in social media with the people who can cross from one group to another. We need to make sure that those people understand the good they bring and give them the work to build bridges. This can go a long way to creating multi-group solidarity, which is good for all of us.

We’re talking about many different kinds of communication through social media where there are campaigns and wars online. But I’m also thinking again about other kinds of conversation, ones that don’t always include that kind of communication. I’m thinking about hashtags on Twitter and how they are used to attack others, but also to tell stories that minority voices could not communicate to the mainstream before.

I’m thinking about the stories around sexual violence, abortions, undocumented workers, and racism. The people who tell these stories need to do a lot of emotional work, but when people have the strength and support, they communicate what has not been heard before.

So I don’t think I’m a big optimist. But I’m trying to find ways to make the stories stronger and ways to bring people together in empathy and solidarity.

Meredith - yes

I’m happy you talked about the difference between the two kinds of solidarity. Not many people understand it. Even fewer people understand that the wrong kind of solidarity is winning.

We see hashtags to support depression or debt, but where are the hashtags for criminals or the seriously mentally ill – the Others people are afraid of being?

In the optimistic long view, it’s easy to say ‘their time will come as communication brings understanding and compassion’. But for now, it is easy for people to put themselves at the centre of groups with negative effects. For multi-group solidarity to win, a large number of people in society must choose to do no harm.

Deanna - no

Social media can help or harm. This is why we have to look at the structures that create and support the tools we’re using. If we’re using tools built mostly by cisgender straight white men with a narrow idea of humanity, then there is no positive future. When we make a system, our ideas good or bad are in the code and algorithms. I’m looking forward to supporting a future which includes all ideas and criticisms.


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