THE BLOG

In Defence of Social Media

25/11/2015 10:17 GMT | Updated 24/11/2016 10:12 GMT

Technology, specifically social media, has been getting a lot of flak of late.

It's argued we're becoming less sociable, more depressed, and that social media is corroding traditionally formed relationships, resulting in a rise in mental health issues, especially in young people.

There is of course, no denying that there have been many issues with social media -- public shaming (a phenomenon congenially outlined by Jon Ronson), online bullying, an un-erasable record of photos and comments online, a constant 'fear of missing out', and inferiority complexity. However, perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on how social media and technology is actually incredibly enabling when it comes to forging relationships and battling mental health. I want to highlight how social media and other digital mediums often aid socialising and a sense of community.

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As 18-year-old Australian model Essena O'Neill is hitting headlines for exposing the truth behind her 'perfect' photos, she highlights how sharing on social media can be fake, claiming her endeavour for likes and views "suffocated" her. This paints a very bleak portrait of the strive for popularity.

Can you really say that the 80s and 90s was significantly different though? TV and magazines were the medium for depicting the 'perfect' lives of models and celebrities, and the culture of conspicuous consumption was at a peak. Back then, what platforms were available for popular people to talk about how unhappy they were?

These are brave people who do expose the reality, and we need more voices who are prepared to highlight the manipulation and work which goes into portraying perfection.

Whilst older, wiser people may well know that social media is often distorted, and serves to show off, taking a pinch of salt with the endless stream of photos of smiling, over-achieving friends on numerous holidays and adventures, there are of course those who will be more affected and envious of their peers.

The focus on the perils of social media is often centred around young people. It is important to remember that it is often an incredibly difficult and lonely experience going through your teen years, and it is normal to feel inferior to the 'popular' kids and the celebs in the glossy magazines and on the telly. This was certainly true pre-internet. Just because young people see their peers' carefully curated photos on social media in real-time now, doesn't mean that they wouldn't have felt just as left out should they have heard about it at a later date, often embellished and sensationalised anyway.

The fact is, people are talking about mental health and there is more awareness of late. Social media has got the stories of those suffering with depression and suicide in front of millions of people, when it was arguably much more taboo to talk about it pre-internet. Huge personalities such as Stephen Fry and Professor Green talking openly about their own experiences with depression have been shared hundreds of thousands of times, by people all round the world. Would their stories have reached as far, if social media wasn't around?

Certain technology and social media have actually been built specifically to help with those who suffer from negative feelings and mental health. Online counselling, forums, reading others' experiences and advice may well be platforms which can ease, or even cure certain cases.

There is a loneliness epidemic plaguing city dwellers, and whilst no means perfect, there have never been so many ways to meet and talk to more people. Whatsapp, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, etc can be a superb way to socialise and arrange meet ups.

The recent study in the Journal Computers in Human Behaviour by Margaret Duffy & The University of Missouri, found what while browsing Facebook promotes feelings of envy among users that can lead to depression, it can also "be a fun and healthy activity if users take advantage of the site to stay connected with family and old friends and to share interesting and important aspects of their lives."

Not only this, but (when carried out in a healthy fashion), social media and technology can help people be who they want to be. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle, author of "Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other" highlights the culture of 'I share therefore I am.' Whilst this can be a particularly insidious activity, we must remember that 'sharing' to establish one's identity is not necessarily a bad thing.

Humans possess a very natural, deep-rooted desire to form tribes and be a part of something. Someone who wants to meet other people who are into similar interests or identities are able to more so than ever before. If you are into comics, you can follow and interact with fellow comic-fans. Crossfit enthusiasts can compare methods and tips with those who will be interested and supportive. Whether you are a Belieber, an animals rights activist, a sci fi fan or a Digital Nomad, social media platforms can enable users to build around this identity easily by curating their own content to fit in with their ideals and lifestyle, and to find peers and new friends via social media and other networking platforms. You can find Meetup groups for virtually anything these days (there is even a Meetup just for introverts!), you can find which friends are going to which gigs, make new friends at supper clubs, engage in skills-swapping/time-banking schemes, and use platforms such as Borrowmydoggy, Shooting People, Coach Me and Twitch to find and talk to people with similar niche interests. There have never been so many opportunities to find likeminded people and communicate with them.

Whilst I am not denying the issues where people feeling negative due to social media and technology, I hope that some of the above reasons highlight the positive side as well.

Whilst some claim that social media and technology detoxes are the solution, the fact is, technology and social media are not going away, and in fact will become more and more ingrained with our lives. More education, and being taught to question the reality of social media, and helping people to seek out more meaningful relationships with like minded people online may be a solution instead. People need to understand that likes, views and shares are not an indicator of success.