Is social media really to blame for our growing state of anxiety?
Through the looking glass of a different perspective
In these past few months, there has been a lot of dirt thrown around — particularly towards Facebook — about its social duty to its users.
However, a lack of understanding of what Facebook (or how social media operates in general) is as good as Congress getting angry at Google for Wikipedia rejecting the changes they’ve done on their own pages — something which is against Wikipedia’s T&Cs.
Everyone knows that Google and Wikipedia are two very different and completely separate entities, each doing their own thing. Or rather, it turns out, that understanding is not as common as we first thought it was.
Social media should be gatekeepers but… #freeSpeech
Our ability to express any opinions without censorship or restraint is the core concept behind the idea of free speech. It seems somewhat ironic and in opposition to calls from various parties to regulate social giants.
If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification. — JK Rowling
In 2016, J.K. Rowling defended censorship of Trump after an online petition to ban him from entering the UK, despite her personal disapproval of his messages and words he speaks. She responded saying:
“I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine.”
This is important towards our understanding of social media in that they are platforms where voices can be heard. It is just unfortunate that sometimes the loudest and richest voices are the ones that drown out any singular one.
Social media is like the ancient Greek version of the Agora — an open public space that’s connected to marketplaces, art, performances, and words. If we assume that the algorithms behind the social giants are minimally unbiased, then blaming Facebook or Google or Twitter for your personal woes and sense of anxiety is like blaming the concrete ground you’re walking on for existing.
It doesn’t make sense.
It’s all about attention
But is the algorithm really unbiased? Or is it just trying to be helpful by biased based on what it knows about me? The purpose of targeted marketing is to bring something to a relevant person’s attention based on a series of traits.
My partner and I were having a conversation the other day about the number of ads he sees on Twitch. I hardly see any at all — simply because I explicitly let the streaming platform know that I am female — and being a male-dominated space, advertisers spend their money on gender as their target metric.
In an hour, he was forced to watch 5 ads with no skip option while I enjoyed no such thing. My advert rates are more like one every other month. On the rare occasion, I do get an advert, it’s usually for a chick flick.
Twitch is a social platform. It is the wall where people go and hang up their live streams for the world to see. Yet, the disparity between our experience is not because of sexism. But rather, it’s due to the people behind the ads. They’re the ones that are setting the targets. They’re the ones that are partially paying for Twitch to continue its existence.
It’s the same for Facebook.
And every social media platform in current existence.
Advertising is the thing that drives their revenue model. It’s the thing that pays for their employees, office spaces, remote workers, physical and digital servers, and anything else you need to run a business. Advertising is the thing that makes them money.
These platforms are selling potential attention — measured through engagement, number of clicks and comments. The more money pumped into a platform, the more chances of attention it gets. If engagement goes well, then it gets redistributed to others on your network for free. The coded digital brain probably thinks “if you find it interesting, then people you know might find it interesting too”.
It makes sense. That’s how word of mouth works. Social media just does it automatically for you.
Ahhhhh. It’s the big scary.
The rise of being an influencer as a legit and profitable career choice is not a mistake. They’re the people that’s figured out how to navigate social media and the online world, grew their following, have the ability to hold down and engage a significant group within a certain demographic, niche and measurable metric.
Advertisers flock to them because they’ve figured out how to become internet famous without the need of a movie studio or TV series. There is something interesting about them, something of value that has the power to hold and create conversations with faceless strangers. It’s not uncommon for influencers to become mouthpieces for advertisers.
So what’s the difference between them and Facebook? They’re both selling the attention of others. They’re both businesses in their own right. Except one is an entity and other is human. One has a face and other has a man-made logo and a distributed digital brain that’s created by humans.
This brings me to the question: Is social media really to blame for our growing state of anxiety?
I think not
Anxiety and depression have always existed. Earliest written records date back to 460BC and attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates. It didn’t become an officially recognized thing until the 1980s by the American Psychiatric Association. Anyone with the condition is simply attributed to stress or nerves.
With the recent explosion of anxiety and depression being discussed and distributed by the media — both social and traditional — more people are becoming aware of it, which often leads to a self-diagnosis.
There is nothing wrong with self-diagnosis when it comes to anxiety. I am guilty of it too. But it becomes an issue when rather than looking for the root cause and reasons for the anxiety, we lay blame on the easiest and possibly voiceless victim.
The term ‘social media’ is often confused with the platform it sits on. Facebook without people is not social media. Twitter without its tweets makes no fodder for discussion. Twitch without its streamers is completely useless.
It is the content, mostly created by another human on the other side of the screen, that makes us hyper-aware of our ultra-connected world, its miseries, sadness, badness, arguments, hypocrisies, anger, robberies, wars, deaths, and destructions. The more we engage, the more these platforms show us the content. It thinks we find it valuable and therefore shows us more of the same.
When we are constantly exposed to negative and emotionally charged content, we tend to absorb, internalize and re-externalize such emotions. We become a reflection of what we constantly see — angry and anxious people.
If not, we find ourselves comparing our perfectly stable lives to the adventures of others. We know it’s not good for us but we do it anyway.
Back in the day, all this was done through television and print.
Nowadays, it’s all in digital ink — connected and attached to our hands as little glowing portals.
I think it’s unfair to say that social media is the cause of all our mental woes. Social media itself is nothing without the people — and there will always be people.
And anxiety will always exist — with or without social media. Finding the triggers and understanding them is a better way than playing the blame game. Blame games don’t solve anything. Understanding yourself, your thoughts and reasons for anxiety is a better solution. Only then can you start to identify the triggers and start down the journey of overcoming it.