Is social media making us sad?

On the UK’s Channel 4 News website, Benjamin Cohen is concerned that social media is changing the nature of friendship, and has adjusted his use of social media in response:

I’ve stopped sharing as much, full stop….I’m not suggesting that everyone else should do the same, but I’m suggesting that quite a few people might, many have already. Mark Zuckerberg has always said the world would be a better place if it was more open. I’m suggesting that sometimes the world might be a better place if it was more private.

And on the Cunting Linguist, Steffani Cameron writes:

It’s funny, you know, how we kid ourselves about how much this online shit matters…There’s this delusion that the more followers you have, the more of a voice you have, or that you can be so much more yourself. The opposite is actually true….When people start actually reading your stuff, merely venting gets complicated.  I feel I’m less able to express myself on this blog now. I feel like I have to “watch” what I say. …Welcome to the digital paradox. You can be “yourself” to a bigger audience than ever before, but how true is it?

These two blog posts reflect a growing unease with social media, one that is most adeptly and thoroughly addressed in Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together. Like Turkle, they suggest that the volume, frequency and tenor of online interaction are negatively affecting our human capacity for meaningful connection and relationship. It’s a concern I come across frequently, no doubt in large part because I go looking for it via Google searches on terms like “information overload”.

But you don’t have to dig deeply into the blogosphere to discover that lots of us are suffering over the impact of social media on our daily lives. Even those of us who are unwilling to follow Cohen in pulling back our level of online sharing may have reservations about the way that sharing plays out. We carry our smartphones everywhere, but resent the sound that indicates a new email has arrived. We celebrate the steady growth of our Twitter followers or blog traffic, then agonize when it stalls or declines. We love the ability to access the Internet anytime or anywhere, but feel insulted if the person we’re with decides to go online instead of looking us in the eye.

These are the pains of transition, but a transition to what? The transition to a world in which we accept and even embrace the 24/7 distraction and overexposure of social media as the price of at-our-fingertips information and expression? Or to a world in which we succeed in containing our time online, and setting some limits on where, when and what we share through social media?

For those who would limit the corrosive effects of social media and perpetual connectivity, solutions seem to come in 6 flavours:

  1. Policies: Families, organizations or even governments could limit the amount of time we spend online. Families could set screen time limits; businesses could (and frequently do) block employees from using Facebook or YouTube. Governments could use privacy laws to protect citizens from their own rampant oversharing, or enact labor laws that insulate workers from the pressure to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week.
  2. Markets: Global recession, skyrocketing energy prices or the erosion of net neutrality could increase the costs of connectivity to the point at which people actually reduce usage. Conversely, an economic boom could produce a generation of affluence in which high-skill workers feel no anxiety about their economic prospects, and thus, no pressure to work online after hours.
  3. Technologies: Cell phone jammers could (and occasionally do) prevent individuals from using their phones in restaurants or other “inappropriate” public places. Timers could shut computers or Internet connections during designated hours. Better search and discovery tools could allow people to become more focused and productive in their time online, and reduce the amount of time they spend using the Internet.
  4. Services: Individuals could scan or scrub their online profiles with the help of Internet consultants, perhaps even going so far as to rename themselves to escape their online pasts. Constant Internet use or information overload could be treated with psychological counselling or a 12-step program that returns screen time to socially accepted levels.
  5. Norms: Widespread discomfort with social media and 24/7 Internet use could lead to social sanctions that inhibit public texting, computing or even phone use. Someone who takes out their computer at a coffee shop might suffer withering glares, or even be asked to leave. People who answer email after 6 pm will become social pariahs. Families who let their kids use the Internet will be regarded with the same contempt as those who feed their children a steady diet of sugar and Doritos.
  6. Choices: Individuals will realize that they are happier, more authentic and fulfilled in their offline lives, and reduce the amount of time they spend using social media.

If you think all of these scenarios sound far-fetched — or at least, unlikely to put a serious dent in our levels of Internet use — I’m with you. Pandora’s Big Box of Social Media is well and truly open, and we’re discovering a whole new repertoire of ailments the Ancient Greeks never imagined.

But don’t despair. Accepting the misery of 24/7 distraction isn’t the only alternative to limiting the growth of our time online. The transition to an always-on world may be unstoppable, but it’s a transition we’ve barely started: why assume it’s the transition to a dystopic future? We’ve only just begun experimenting with the policies, markets, technologies, services, norms and choices that focus not on stemming the transition, but harnessing it to the creation of a better world and happier lives. And most of us have lived far too long in the pre-Internet world to move immediately and fluidly into this new on/offline hybrid; we need time to adjust, to reinvent ourselves, and to let the population shift in favour of those who grew up online.

As we evolve into a society of digital natives and fluent digital immigrants, the suffering of social media will ease. We’ll become less painfully aware of its shortcomings, and more appreciative of its delights. And eventually, we’ll stop agonizing over the pain of life online, and recognize it simply as the pain of life.