CANTWELL: Social media: Friend or foe?

I was lucky enough to have grown up in the years just before social media. I spent my childhood playing outside with my friends, calling my cousin on the landline with the number I’d memorized, and only staring at a screen to play the occasional computer or video game.

Social media didn’t take off until I was a teenager, and for that, I am grateful. I have watched people I care about, just a few years younger than me, experience what can only be described as a lasting addiction to it from a young age.

Not that I was immune, either. Like many, countless hours of my teenage years were lost to mind-numbingly scrolling through endless photos of people who looked like they were having a lot more fun than I was.

Sound familiar? That’s because social media platforms are designed to exploit the way our brains function. To add to the problem, young people are more likely to use these platforms as coping mechanisms for uncomfortable feelings or as social crutches.

It is now widely known that social media has a similar effect on the brain as drugs, which is no accident on the part of the corporations that make billions off of platforms like Instagram and TikTok. Research also shows links between social media and mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, body-image and self-esteem issues, and loneliness.

That said, is social media all bad?

A few years ago I took an accidental hiatus from posting due to lack of time, but the relief I’ve felt ever since has been incentive enough to continue that break. I no longer waste time trying to set up the perfect photo, or scrutinizing and editing it later. And I no longer need that dopamine-hit of validation that comes when a like or comment rolls in.

But I still use social media to send photos and videos to my friends, find inspiration through art and cooking, and stay connected to what is going on in the world. It can also be a necessary tool for those looking to promote a small business or showcase a portfolio.

While mindless, excessive, or self-destructive social media use is definitely harmful, I would argue that it can bring certain benefits when used in a purposeful and responsible manner. In today’s world, it may not be realistic to do away with social media entirely. It’s here to stay, so we need to learn to coexist with it and start using it as a tool rather than a distraction. Don’t work for social media — make it work for you.

The key is to set up whatever safeguards you need — set limits, unfollow accounts that make you feel badly about yourself, and take breaks. You can easily set time limits on certain apps, or, if you need to, download an app that locks you out of social media altogether after a specified amount of time.

Now that we know so much about how social media impacts our thoughts and behaviors, we can start to change the way that we engage with it. We have the tools, now we just need to put in the work, while continuing to support efforts to educate the public about its risks and hold corporations accountable for unethical designs.

Alyssa Cantwell is The Item’s Opinion editor. Her column appears every other week.

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