Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Social media – friend or foe?

I am somewhat addicted to Twitter, and marginally hooked on Facebook. I find them useful in following multiple news sources, building a work profile and staying in contact with friends across the globe. That said, I think (and this is what all addicts say, apparently) I can control my habit. I definitely prefer human company to my computer and feel that social media should enhance life, not subsume it.

That said, there is an addictive element to social media (or, perhaps, to my personality). Being constantly in touch with people and getting blow-by-blow accounts of events can be compelling.

Researchers at Harvard, according to Helpguide.org, have found some evidence that the act of disclosing information about oneself is connected to the same regions of the brain that are linked to reward. This could be one reason why some people can be compelled to post and share information on social media.

But can we really become hooked on social media?

Some psychiatrists (perhaps desperate for new business which they may even pick up online) have called for the consideration of a social media addiction disorder. In fact, some are now talking about Facebook Addiction Disorder, amusingly called FAD. If you search Facebook, you can, rather ironically, find several pages on it.

Dr Cecilie Schou Andreassen heads the Facebook Addiction Project at the University of Bergen. Preliminary research by the Bergen team apparently suggests that younger people and women are more likely to be addicted to Facebook.

Social media addiction, or so the so-called experts say, can result, paradoxically, in social withdrawal. Some academics also say there may be a link between narcissism and Facebook and Twitter use, but others argue that sharing enhances relationships and intimacy. Still others claim that the increasing use of social media suggests a collapse in interpersonal face-to-face contact.

This is, arguably, nowhere more evident than the explosion in dating sites on the Internet. Meeting people on the Internet through such media might point to an increasingly disconnected world where we can no longer connect in person, or our communities are so shattered and our lives too busy to relate in traditional ways.

But people are using dating sites and social media to connect in their droves. In the US, the dating sites industry is a $2-billion business, and revenues have increased by 50% in the last year. Twitter has about 100-million users and Facebook now has a whopping 850 000-million users, and both are growing daily. In other words, nearly one-seventh of the planet is using Facebook.

The sheer volume suggests that people must be getting something out of it, and it would be wrong to simply pathologise the increasing use of the Internet and desire to connect with others as an addiction or something trivial.

The world has changed. Harping on about the good old days when people met at the corner café seems pointless to me. Not exploiting new ways to connect with others is self-defeating. I also think scare stories about increasing levels of dependence and growing social decline because of the Internet are unproductive.

New technologies have always provoked different forms of moral panic. Rock music and Elvis Presley’s hips were going to be the ruin of civilisation. Television was going to turn our brains to mush.

Of course, one can debate the merits of television and some music. But what is indisputable about them and many technologies is that they are born out of creativity. The question, therefore, for me, is not about social media addiction, but rather about how it can be used positively in terms of collaboration, new ideas and innovation.

So more focus is needed on how we can all, young and old, learn to harness the opportunity social media offers, good and bad. Spending energy on teaching creativity is far more productive than prevaricating on the evils in the world and trying to guard against them.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 August 2012 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.