Social media (SM) is undoubtedly one of the greatest innovations in human history. Its impact on human interaction, businesses, marketing, entertainment, information dissemination, and inclusive democracy is commendable. Social media has improved how people interact not only individually but also professionally. Its use has phenomenally grown over the last decade, with up to 90 % of American adults signing up for a social networking site (SNS) (McCarroll et al. 1). This exponential growth in SM use has triggered an upsurge in debates on the impacts of social media on society. The enigma of whether social media divides or equates its users is one yet to be fully solved (McCarroll et al. 1). This paper discusses the correlation between social media use and issues such as SM addiction and cyberbullying. In addition to exploring the effects of specific sites such as Facebook and Instagram, this paper will also provide empirical evidence as to why the divisive nature of SM transcends its ability to equalize society.
Facebook and Instagram are some of the most popular social media platforms among teens and young people. Both networking sites report over two billion monetizable active users every month (Xuan and Amat 2). According to research, these two platforms activate the same neural circuitry as recreational drugs and gambling to keep users actively engaged in their products (McCarroll et al. 2). Facebook and Instagram contain algorithms that gather information on users’ interests, likes, and preferences. The data is then used to personalize the customer’s experience to increase their mental engagement and, subsequently, time spent on social media.
Social media addiction is the compulsive or uncontrolled use of social networking sites. Xuan and Amat describe it as “The irresistible desire to constantly log in or use SNS, and devoting too much energy to these platforms that it impairs psychological health, interpersonal relationships, and social activities” (2). SM addiction involves the inappropriate use of internet-based platforms, which could be due to numerous reasons. Qualitative studies show the primary reason for SM addiction is a lack of friends in the real world (Xuan and Amat 4). Loneliness and poor social relationships drive people to seek attention on social media platforms. They constantly seek acceptance by uploading photos, updating statuses, and searching for new followers (Xuan and Amat, 4). These attempts to compensate for their lack of offline social connections increase their screen time, subsequently increasing their addiction. This way, SM leads to an even more divided society as people have less time to interact with each other in real life.
The consequential effects of social media addiction also promote the ability of SM to divide society. Social media dependence leads to additional problems that exacerbate social divisiveness. For instance, compulsive use of Instagram can lead to mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders (Xuan and Amat 4). It is difficult for a person in this state to foster connections or build social relationships, which further widens the existing social rift. Moreover, as depression increases, the tendency to delve into SM addiction also increases, leading to traits like psychopathy (Xuan and Amat 4). These psychological impacts impair social interconnectedness resulting in a more divided society.
Similarly, excessive use of SM contributes to low self-esteem and self-efficacy. Low self-confidence weakens a person’s aptitude to connect with others in the real world. This standpoint is in accordance with the theory, which states that “individuals with low self-esteem show despair, imagine failure, feel unattractive, and tend to isolate from social interactions” (Purnama et al. 677). In view of this, it is fair to state that unregulated social media use divides a society through SM addiction and contributes to other downstream effects that further impair social unity.
Cyberbullying is another more significant challenge associated with social media use. According to UNICEF polls, 59% of teens in the US have been subjected to cyberbullying in the past year (Ayeni 4). Additionally, one out of every three teenagers in thirty countries has been a victim of online bullying, with the majority resulting in skipping school (Ayeni, 4). Unfortunately, incidences of cyberbullying have further increased by 70 % since the covid-19 pandemic, an upsurge that indicates the desperate need for novel interventions.
Cyberbullying is becoming more prevalent as the use of social media increases. It can be defined as any form of belligerent behavior on social media piloted by perpetrators against targets who cannot stand up for themselves (Chan et al. 1). The Cyberbullying Research Centre conducted a nationwide survey in which 46% of respondents reported have been bullied more than once, and 20% admitted to having bullied others on SNS (Chan et al. 1). Another research supported this finding stating that the upsurge in cyberbullying is in tandem with the increased use of social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram (Purnama et al. 679). It presents as disparaging comments, rumors, sexual remarks, profile hacking, or threats, all of which lower a victim’s confidence and ability to interact with others.
Online harassment impairs the ability of adults to foster genuine connections. Unfortunately, little research focuses on the bullying of adults on social media platforms. According to Schodt et al., adults have been largely excluded from empirical investigations, despite being significantly affected by cyberbullying (9). Cyberbullying reduces efficacy at the workplace, reduces the sense of self-worth, and promotes social estrangement among adults. For these reasons, social media use, through cyberbullying, leads to a more estranged society.
Social media, in a way, favors the progression of cyberbullying. These sites allow anonymity of the perpetrator, avail potential users that can be victimized, and increase difficulty for the user to disconnect from online platforms (Schodt et al. 10). Anonymity magnifies aggression on online platforms as the bully feels invincible and immune to retaliation from their victims. Moreover, sites like Instagram permit the use of fake identities or other people’s screen names, which gives perpetrators confidence to say things they would be reticent to communicate in a real-life interaction. Malicious comments from bullies negatively impact the emotional and psychological health of the victims. According to Schodt et al., the motivation behind online bullying is the lack of self-confidence, the desire to control or feel better about oneself, intimidation, and retribution (12). Therefore, bullying works by passing on feelings of inadequacy to victims so that the target now feels helpless and out of control (Schodt et al. 12). This subsequently makes it difficult for the target to foster social connections and may even result in the victims themselves becoming bullies, leading to a vicious cycle of populations that destroy social unity.
The downstream effects of cyberbullying victimization (CBV) impair social cohesion. Research has identified a strong correlation between online harassment and mental health (Schodt et al. 1). Cyberbullying contributes to various social issues, including but not limited to depression, substance abuse, and anxiety (Schodt et al. 1). These challenges pose great difficulty in the development of social interconnectedness. Depression impedes social unity because of the personal alienation associated with the condition. Substance abuse leads to neglect of social relationships, and where children are involved, they struggle to form social relationships in adulthood. Anxiety plays a vital role in social behavior and, more often than not, reduces one’s ability to foster interactions (Schodt et al. 15). Recent statistics show that more people experience CBV on Instagram (42%) than on any social media platform (Chan et al. 13). Facebook comes second at 37%, followed by Snapchat at 32%, and WhatsApp at 12 % (Chan et al. 13). Considering the high rates of CBV associated with SM use, it is rational to state that SNS divide a society more than equalize it.
Despite the many downside effects, social media also has its advantages. For instance, 60% of Americans assert that they use Facebook to obtain current information (Chan et al., 10). Similarly, most SM users use Instagram to identify epic regions for travel, shopping, vacations, and tours. Social media has also been instrumental in fostering intimate relationships. People in long-distance relationships depend on these platforms to maintain communication. These sites also enable online dating between individuals who have never met before.
Most importantly, social media unites individuals to pursue a collective goal. For instance, Facebook played an influential role in amassing worldwide support for the “Black Lives Matter Movement” and “Justice for George Floyd.” However, these positive effects do not transcend the negative impacts of Social media. According to Chan et al., the adverse effects, more often than not, surpass the good due to the primary lack of regulation in social media use (12). For that reason, implementing interventions that minimize the bad and promote the good is necessary to change this narrative.
Social media undoubtedly contributes to personal, professional, and social implications. Its use is associated with overdependence, political polarization, cancel cultures, cyberbullying, slacktivism, troll armies, and fake news (McCarroll et al. 8). SM may also contribute to indirect effects such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, reduced efficacy at the workplace, and low self-esteem (McCarroll et al. 8). For these reasons, future research needs to focus on identifying more feasible ways to reduce/ eliminate the shortcomings of these platforms (McCarroll et al. 11). Most importantly, developing systems that provide early warning signs (for instance, alerts and restrictions of excessive SM use) would be instrumental in reducing the number of unpleasant incidences associated with the current digital era.
Social media is an essential tool for communication at individual and professional levels. It has contributed immensely to business development, marketing, entertainment, information dissemination, and inclusive democracy. Nevertheless, it has also been associated with several negative impacts, such as social media addiction, cyberbullying, depression, low self-esteem, troll armies, false news, substance abuse, and conspiracy theories (Ayeni 4). The greatest impact of these negative effects is the disruption in social cohesion. Conclusively, the downside effects of expansive social networks transcend the advantages. Therefore, it is accurate to conclude that current social media platforms divide a society more than equalize it.
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