How social media is affecting our lives
We dive deep into the depths of social media to find out how it works, why it seems like our phones can read our minds and what we can do to stay safe on our favourite sites and apps.
Social media has come a long way since the days of Instant Messenger and Myspace. Facebook has become an essential way to keep in touch with family and reconnect with old friends. Instagram has morphed from a personal scrapbook to an online hub where you can shop, communicate and stay informed on the latest world news. Countless protest movements have spread like wildfire on Twitter. YouTube has birthed a new generation of vloggers. And TikTok, the latest social fad, has transformed important topics, movements and the humour of today into bite-sized videos — as well as skyrocketing Gen Zers to micro-fame. In fact, it’s apps like TikTok and Instagram that govern the trends, movements and even vernacular of modern society.
But what really lies in the shadowy realms of these futuristic apps?
As Sandy Parakilas, a former platform operations manager at Facebook, explains on The Social Dilemma, “There’s only a few people who understand how [social media] systems work, and even they don’t necessarily fully understand what’s gonna happen with a particular piece of content. So, as humans, we’ve almost lost control over these systems … they’re controlling us more than we’re controlling them.”
Behind the scenes of social media
From the depths of Silicon Valley to the device in your palm, the term “algorithm” has no doubt echoed its way into your mind. You probably know that these algorithms decide pretty much everything you see. But what actually is an algorithm — and how does it work? In his book The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos sums it up in a single sentence: “An algorithm is a sequence of instructions telling a computer what to do.” Although, social media algorithms are a little more complex than that.
40 per cent of our waking hours [are] taken up by scrolling, tapping and swiping on our devices.
Your social media news feeds are powered by complex computer systems that monitor your every online move. The computers record what you look at, how long you look at it for, what you like, who you follow and how many times you tap your phone each day and analyse all the information to deliver ads, profiles and search suggestions on every platform. This is how Instagram collates your explore page; how Pinterest determines what shows up on your home feed; and how TikTok delivers videos to your For You page.
The bottom line: you’re seeing what the algorithms want you to see.
According to the Digital 2021 Australia report conducted by We Are Social and social media management platform Hootsuite, Australians spend an average of six hours and 13 minutes online each day. That’s 40 per cent of our waking hours taken up by scrolling, tapping and swiping on our devices — so it’s best not to check your screen time breakdown if you, like me, are often glued to your device. But surely it can’t be that hard to keep our hands off our phones, can it?
Well, it turns out there’s a science behind the rush you feel when you see the likes on your post going up and up. Harvard Medical School researcher Trevor Haynes explains that similar dopamine levels from gambling and taking drugs are activated when we get a notification from Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and Snapchat.
With the addictive elements of social media fresh in your mind, it should come as no surprise that the effects extend well beyond being attached to your phone 24/7. Recent studies show a correlation between social media use and poor sleep, anxiety, depression and even suicide.
But what about what we put on social media? We spend hours curating our Instagrams: choosing the perfect filter, adding a witty caption, even doctoring our photos and videos to “perfection”. And in a world where reality is so distorted by high-tech editing programs, how are young people supposed to decipher the difference between what’s real and what’s not when it comes to social media? Influencer culture and the rise of micro-celebrities on Instagram has seen a surge in body dissatisfaction, especially among young women.
Perhaps social platforms should be forced to highlight when images have been heavily edited. Just imagine if each time we opened our socials, a pop-up notification reminded us that Instagram is, in fact, a kind of alternate reality of its own: “People on screen are less perfect than they appear.”
The fake news era
On social media, everyone who’s anyone can pass their opinion off as facts because social media has paved the way for a post-truth world. We have the option to unfriend, unfollow or even block people when they post something we don’t agree with. This means we’re able to filter our feeds until we are in a comfortable bubble with people who align with our views and preexisting beliefs. Think back to Brexit, the 2016 election and even more recently Australia’s parliamentary #MeToo. Your Facebook and Twitter feeds were probably full of arguments between people who held such polarised opinions it’s almost like they were from different planets. And if you posted something yourself, you probably noticed a few unfollows here and there.
The problem with this isn’t the unfollowing itself. It’s the fact that we are distancing ourselves so much from any other views that we’re teetering on the edge of mistruth ourselves. We’re lending ourselves to confirmation bias, searching for and interpreting information that aligns with our own beliefs. Living in an echo chamber with people who think exactly like you seems unproblematic, and, to some, may even be a perfect world. But in reality, the division of social media has pushed many radicalists out of the light and into the shadows, giving birth to keyboard warriors and cult-like groups manifested in the depths of the dark web on channels like 4chan and even on Reddit.
Recent studies show a correlation between social media use and poor sleep, anxiety, depression and even suicide.
There are 4.2 billion social media users worldwide: that’s more than half the world’s population connecting with one another through a variety of platforms. Recent data from Pew Research surveyed 9200 Americans and found that 71 per cent of them get at least some of their news from social media platforms each week. And when you can get headlines from your favourite news sites, stations and publications delivered straight to your feed, why would you look elsewhere?
At the beginning of this year when Facebook banned Australian news sites, chaos erupted. The platform’s algorithm was ruthless at culling pages, restricting access to essential informational services such as public health organisations, family violence support services and weather forecasts. And it all came down to the now amended and passed News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code that came about to rebalance the power of big tech companies and Australian media publishers. Essentially, Google and Facebook would have had to pay publishers to use news content in order to balance out the profit loss of media outlets from advertising dollars, 80 per cent of which were going to Google and Facebook. This has been sorted, for now, but there are still plenty of cons to the new media bargaining code that will surely coalesce as social media and our use of it continues to grow.
Aside from phrases like “go off” and “big yikes” becoming a part of every teen and 20-something’s everyday vernacular, social media has also played a major role in huge cultural moments like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). Tarana Burke coined the “Me Too” hashtag on Myspace way back in 2006, and it burst onto the mainstream in 2017, resulting in the calling out of Hollywood hotshots and calls for equality and justice for oppressed women across the globe. The BLM movement launched in 2012 after the failure of courts to bring the shooter of Trayvon Martin to justice, and had been steadily building on- and offline until it peaked in June 2020 in the wake of George Floyd’s death, sparking global protests and calls to action.
Although it seems like these issues have been talked about for so long, we have to credit social media for the immediate and global spread of such important issues. More recently in Australia, the #March4Justice rallies were organised on Facebook and Twitter in a matter of days, with more than 100,000 women marching across 40 cities across the country. A sexual assault petition calling for consent to be taught in Sydney schools was started by Chanel Contos in February of this year and garnered over 14,000 signatures and 2000 testimonies of sexual assault by schoolboys in just two days. The positive power of social media can’t be denied.
We’re able to filter our feeds until we are in a comfortable bubble with people who align with our views and preexisting beliefs.
This power also translates to societal trends and evolution, especially when it comes to TikTok. The Gen Z-focused platform redefined the online world, and amid the viral dance videos and popular “#POV” skits, we are also experiencing a kind of revolution in which music artists are going viral and becoming bona fide global sensations, fans are connecting at a level never seen before and minorities including the LGBTQI+ community and BIPOC creators have a safe space in which they are being celebrated; all thanks to minute-long (or less) clips that can go viral no matter whether you have zero or 100,000 followers. The app feels more authentic and less filtered than any other platform — YouTube vlogs included. With apps like this, it feels like we are able to define what we want to see.
TikTok’s top creators Charli D’Amelio and Addison Rae are valued at US$8 million and US$5million respectively. At the time of writing, there are 680 million active TikTok users. But an app of this magnitude is bound to have plenty of issues. Amid the #BlackLivesMatter revolution of 2020, TikTok was caught “shadow-banning” (suppressing or removing) a number of pro-BLM videos deemed too political by the platform’s algorithm. The app also admitted to shadow-banning videos that included the hashtags “gay”, “lesbian” and “transgender” in Arabic, Russian, Bosnian and Estonian. This leaves one to wonder: in an online space that pledges liberty and freedom, how much influence should local governments and laws have over what content is shown?
Perhaps the onus is on us as social media users to demand more of our platforms: how algorithms are used, what content we have access to, how the apps themselves change and grow — the list goes on. It’s also up to us, as individuals, to monitor our own use of socials. Open your feed to alternate views, even if you don’t necessarily agree. Monitor your screen use and know when enough is enough. Ask questions, spark conversations, post responsibly. When used responsibly, social media has the ability to open up new ways of thinking and change the world for the better.
4 steps to help break bad social media habits
- Pick up your phone with a purpose. Ask yourself why you’re picking up your phone: are you bored or stressed, or is it intentional? This will help you stop scrolling mindlessly — and help you figure out when your habit is at its worst.
- Set phone-free time. This will help you avoid feeling like a zombie due to late night scrolling. Set screen time limits on your phone, leave it outside your bedroom at night, and don’t pick it up until you’ve finished your morning routine.
- Disable your app notifications. If you don’t feel your phone buzz, or see a notification icon every time you pick up your phone, you’ll be less tempted to check your socials. And therefore less likely to end up in a scroll hole.
- Allow yourself a set amount of free time each day: this is your reward. You’ll begin to feel less like you need to check your socials, and more like you are in control of your habit. And who knows, you may find that you want to spend less time online and more time IRL!