Why don’t I use social media? Its problems outweigh its benefits. This post explains (what I think are):
- the most significant benefits of social media for most users
- the most significant problems with social media for most users
- the actions you need to take to balance the benefits vs. problems.
Benefits of social media
Let’s see some of the benefits of social media:
- Personal interconnectedness: Social media supports rapid communication with people regardless of where they are located in the world – this means you can see how your friends are going now, track life changes, chat with them about anything and everything, and organise and promote events quickly.
- Sharing ideas: Social media can support useful groups, provide exposure to ideas that otherwise you wouldn’t have encountered (sometimes), and provide a way to test and explore new ideas.
- Broader awareness: Social media provides a way to stay up-to-date with world and local news, humanitarian issues, and situations in governments and corporations.
- Business uses: Social media can also be used by organisations for various purposes, like marketing, product research, customer service, public relations, talent recruitment, etc.
Problems with social media
Given these benefits, why leave social media?
- View of reality: Social media algorithms create a distorted vision of the world skewed towards extremes (e.g., perfection, horror, outrage, etc.). Unusual, bizarre, or exceptional content tends to receive more social interest. This means you are shown a picture of reality in which everyone is starting a new job, enjoying a relationship (or breaking off a relationship), or looking their best at a party. This view does not reflect what most of life, for most people, is really like.
- Realistic impact assessment: Social media platforms reinforce a distorted sense of what matters, where value is, and the extent to which you are making a real difference. You can feel very busy without making much difference at all (see, e.g., Peter Drucker’s excellent book The Effective Executive). This leads to simplistic pseudo-solutions to complex social problems, group-think, and reactionism (jumping on the latest bandwagon). Without asking whether your investment of time and mental energy is worth it, you risk losing a lot of time in deep personal ineffectiveness.
- Meaningful concentration: Social media platforms are distracting. They reduce your ability to concentrate on the tasks that matter most. When you face difficult problems requiring deep concentration or relentless action, it’s tempting to turn to social media. This is because negative emotional triggers (e.g., boredom, stress, etc.) are more habit-forming than positive emotions. As a result, it becomes harder to focus on what actually matters.
- Quality of social interaction: Social media often interferes with social interactions, sometimes trivially (e.g., someone in the middle of a serious conversation with you checks their phone immediately on receiving a notification) and often more seriously. To spend high-quality time with other people, you need to be present – your thoughts and emotions and attention all need to be truly engaged in the present moment. Because social media makes this harder, it reduces the quality (not necessarily quantity) of your time with other people.
- Peer pressure: There are many issues around peer pressure and bullying which are particularly, although not exclusively, prevalent among social media users who are high-school students.
- Privacy and security: These platforms also create a host of privacy and security issues. What can your peers, current or future employers, current or future opponents, etc. find? What may social media companies do in the future with content you put on their platforms (e.g., sharing it with third parties for other purposes than you originally intended)?
- Physical health: Social media can lead to issues like poor exercise habits and sleep interruption/deprivation. Decreased physical health also negatively affects mental health, social relationships, ability to work, and so on.
- Mental health: Social media platforms are engineered for addictiveness. They are designed to develop and reinforce habit loops (trigger → action → variable reward → investment → trigger …). The strongest emotional triggers are negative emotions, which means that, if you feel depressed, anxious, or stressed, you’re more likely to use social media as a way to relieve the immediate symptoms. A distorted view of reality (as per the first point) also contributes to this problem: it’s easy to feel your current situation is very abnormal because it doesn’t align with what algorithms present most frequently, when the opposite may very well be true. So social media can harm your mental health.
Balancing benefits vs. problems
Cal Newport argues in various places, “Before adopting a technology that can make a regular claim on your attention, insist that its benefits unambiguously outweigh its negatives.” In many cases, he suggests, this means not adopting social media tools, or leaving them if you have started using them in the past. So:
- Deliberate choices: Weigh up the benefits and downsides of the social media platforms you currently use. We are biased towards maintaining the status quo, so switch your perspective – make leaving social media your default option, and then weigh up the factors both pro and con.
- Diagnostic questions: Is this (platform, habit, etc.) actually making me happier, or not? Is it genuinely contributing to the lives of other people, or not? How can I use the time I am spending on social media more effectively to help other people? Am I controlling where I invest my time, or not? Will the/my world end if I leave social media, or not?
- Better replacements: Replace the time you spend on social media with other habits – e.g., in-person meetings with friends, exercising, going for a walk, reading a book, working on a personal project, thinking systematically through a difficult problem, etc. It’s very hard to overturn negative habits without replacing them with more constructive ones.
- Set boundaries: Take time away from social media platforms regularly – e.g., in mornings or late evenings; or for set periods of a few hours; or with friends; or in particular locations, or on weekends, or for a few months.
- Leave social media: Just do it – why not? In light of the points above, there is a very strong case for leaving social media entirely.