Social media: the good, the bad, the ugly
There are few things more characteristic of the 21st century — or more controversial — than social media. Whether it’s catching up with friends on Facebook, watching videos on YouTube, or posting a new selfie on Instagram, social media has come to dominate our lives, especially for young people.
And given its undeniable presence and impact, it is essential that we consider its benefits, drawbacks and the unfortunate stereotypes that its use perpetuates.
Let’s start by clarifying the term “social media.” According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary this term includes all “forms of electronic communication (such as websites for social networking and microblogging) through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content (such as videos).”
This would include such apps and sites as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter and more.
Some are quick to write off social media as destructive and dangerous, but they are neglecting social media’s many benefits. Communicating with others online has been shown to help individuals develop better social skills and feel less isolated.
My own personal experience has taught me that this can indeed be the case. After coming home from summer camp, social media has allowed me to stay in touch with my friends who live miles away.
And this notion can be especially relevant to older adults: As corroborated by Sunrise Senior Living’s website, “One of the most advantageous aspects of social media for senior citizens is that it allows them to communicate with loved ones who live in other parts of the world.
“They are able to chat with friends or family in group messages, enabling both parties to check in on the other and have peace of mind knowing everyone is healthy and happy.”
However, for many, social media can go even deeper when it comes to combating isolation. For instance, an LGBTQ+ individual can connect online with others who are also a part of that community, making them feel as if they are less alone.
One can also be exposed to new cultural and societal ideas and issues through social media. Logging onto Facebook, one is often bombarded with news clips and current events.
Even though the reporting on many of these social media sites may not be the most credible, it still serves to alert users to what is going on in the world, and can often influence them to do further research on more reputable sites.
In addition, social media can serve as a platform to promote positivity and spread valuable ideas. A topical example is none other than the #NeverAgain movement on Twitter, formed by high school students fighting for increased gun control after their school was attacked.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that social media is perfect. Far from it.
Spending too much time online can lead to a disconnect with the real world. I’ve seen this occurring in my own life as well: there have been several times when I’ve arrived at lunch at school only to find my friends ignoring one another, immersed by the world behind their screens.
Social media such as Instagram and Facebook can also lead to the development of poor body image and self-esteem. This frequently stems from the fact that many users post only the most flattering, aesthetically pleasing images of themselves, creating the illusion that their lives are perfect, and making viewers feel like failures by comparison.
In fact, according to the Huffpost, “60% of people using social media reported that it has impacted their self-esteem in a negative way.”
And then, of course, there’s cyber-bullying. Teen girls in particular are at risk of being victimized, but teen boys, adults and older adults are not immune. And this type of bullying can have profoundly detrimental effects, ranging from depression and anxiety, to suicidal thoughts and actions.
With national elections soon approaching, how can I not mention the role social media has played of late in the political sphere? Russian hacking, propaganda and Twitter storms have been in the public eye in recent days, reminding us that social media can negatively impact our political as well as personal lives.
With this in mind, older adults and teens alike must aim to stay vigilant and exercise critical thinking skills when balancing social media with political messages.
Beyond the good and bad about social media, we must also consider the ugly: stereotypes we frequently make about social media and technology use.
Some common ones: “all teens are obsessed with their phones” and “anyone over the age of sixty has no clue how to use social media.”
I can still remember a time when, after the end of my shift at work one summer, I was approached by an older man who told me that if I didn’t get off my phone, I might turn into one. I respectfully nodded and acknowledged him, but I remember feeling hurt by his comment. I, in fact, have very little social media presence and had just wanted to quickly check my emails.
Similarly, I remember feeling aggravated when a friend of mine made a comment about how annoyed she was that her grandparents had no idea how to use a smartphone. It wasn’t fair for her to fault her grandparents who, unlike her, had not been born into a technological world.
With these anecdotes in mind, I ask that, regardless of your level of familiarity or comfort with social media, you please remember the importance of putting an end to harmful stereotypes.
Another great way to prevent these stereotypes from being made is to defy them. For those interested in becoming more technologically fluent, there are plenty of programs in which teens help older adults learn how to use technology and social media.
A great local example is the Interages Tech Connect program (visit https://accessjca.org/senior-tech-program-featured-on-seniors-today/ or call (301) 255-4234 to learn more). In addition, you may want to consider contacting your local library, senior center or recreation center to see if they offer any tech courses.
Social media is a complex animal. Having conversations about its merits and drawbacks is therefore extremely important to understanding it.
And it is my belief that making said conversations intergenerational will diminish use of stereotypes like the ones I’ve listed above. When you next interact with your younger friends, I encourage you to partake in this kind of dialogue, and work together to secure a more technologically safe and aware future.
Alexis Bentz is a 12th-grade student at Thomas Wootton High School in Rockville, Md. This is the sixth year she has been writing this intergenerational column for Beacon readers.