On Earth Day, 2019, a company called TenTree created a post that pledged to plant trees in exchange for Instagram likes. The company initially aimed to receive 5 million likes and plant 500,000 trees. However, it blew up at a staggering rate and is now the fourth most liked Instagram post of all time.
TenTree, a sustainability-oriented clothing brand, garnered the attention of an entire platform because it provided a way for casual supporters of environmentalism to make a difference without disrupting the patterns of their everyday life. Since Earth Day, many other organizations have followed in TenTree’s footsteps, promising to feed the hungry or clean up the oceans upon reaching a certain number of likes. Although many supposed activists are simply clamoring for a following, it’s easy to see how beneficial this concept could be. Public attention creates an incentive for companies to take action, and social media users can easily lend their support with the tap of a screen.
Social media not only fosters activist movements, but can also provide a healthy space for people to connect with others who share their interests or traits, especially young people. Many teenagers struggle to honestly share their feelings with people they know in real life, but can connect with people from all the way across the world in niche communities. Social media takes away much of the difficulty of maintaining a relationship across a great distance.
In spite of all this, many celebrities have recently begun actively avoiding social media participation. In comedian Bo Burnham’s “Make Happy,” he accused social media of being a “cult of expression” and advised his viewers to avoid it if at all possible. John Green, renowned author and YouTuber, claimed that the Internet had begun to feel “unfulfilling,” and chose to take a year off of social media. After completing his “fast,” Green spoke about how he found himself less anxious and more informed without social media.
Bo Burnham gained popularity after uploading songs to YouTube, intended mainly to entertain his brother, who was away at college. Similarly, John Green became YouTube famous with a project during which he and his brother, Hank, used YouTube vlogs for communication. Both of these men’s careers were essentially born of social media, and both have maintained an active social media presence throughout their careers. Yet they both ultimately chose to speak out against it.
If social media is so good, why are people trying so hard to get away from it?
Social media often makes anyone with any difference from the norm feel alienated. A culture based around presenting unattainable ideals is extremely harmful, forcing users to compare the seemingly perfect lives of others to their own and endlessly churning out disappointment as a byproduct. This has resulted in an epidemic-like growth of anxiety and depression among modern teenagers.
When I first installed the Instagram app on my phone, one of the first things I did was send follow requests to my friends. I noticed that the vast majority of them responded within minutes, some even within seconds, exemplifying the frequency of teenage access to social media. In fact, a study by Common Sense Media reported that U.S. teenagers spend an average of nine hours a day online. Social media is undeniably an enormous part of modern adolescence, but for many, it’s neither enjoyable nor satisfying. Social media can make people feel trapped and obligated to spend their time using it, because it’s easier to get engaged in than other forms of media and takes little effort. It creates a hard-to-escape cycle of constant usage, perpetuated by the effective algorithms of social media companies. These algorithms are created to keep people using social media for the longest possible duration. Accuracy and usefulness are glossed over in favor of posts with the capacity to grab and hold users’ attention—in a word, clickbait.
Social media has created genuine and effective positive change in the world today, but it is also extremely detrimental for many users. It does not need to be destroyed, but it desperately needs to change. Regulations should be imposed on companies’ use of algorithms, so that users can exert more control over the type of content they are exposed to. People should be urged to actively avoid negative social media, such as fake news and disturbing or inappropriate content. Programs that can be used to block social media after a certain amount of time should be integrated into social media apps to prevent overuse.
If everyone can work together to recognize social media as a dangerous but potentially helpful tool, positive use of social media will prevail. Social media will never go extinct, but with time and effort, it can be transformed into a productive, gratifying method of expression that is safe and healthy for everyone.
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