My day used to begin not with the sound of my alarm, but with the artificial light of a phone screen and the scroll through notifications that follow it. I’d been known to snore through consecutive alarms, but the influx of information first thing in the morning was the mental espresso shot that kept my eyes open long enough to roll out of bed.
And if this doesn’t sound familiar, you’re either lying, or you’re on the path to enlightenment.
Stories of morning routines like mine are often segues into arguments about how social media has irreversibly transformed our culture for the worse—specifically, in regards to the growing mental illness epidemic. Recent studies offer a fairly damning verdict on social media’s effects on teenage mental health: According to the Child Mind Institute, “...teenage and young adult users who spend the most time on Instagram, Facebook and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time.” Statistics like these paint an overwhelmingly bleak picture of our self-documenting generation raised on social media, but the issue is a bit more nuanced.
The research does present valid concerns about social media’s implications, and I’m certainly not proud of having used it to get up in the morning. But if asked whether my life would improve in the absence of social media, I’d have to respond, “Not so much.”
Generation Z is the frequent object of past generations’ pity. To our predecessors, we are deprived of the good old pre-iPhone days of true socializing. But society has a marked tendency to yearn for the past—regardless of whether or not it was objectively better than the present.
Social media equips everyone with an audience, but it’s not all about gaining followers and receiving likes. At no other time in history has it been possible to so easily explore the world beyond the bubble of one’s immediate surroundings. If no one around you has knowledge of your particular hobby, you can seek out an online community that does. Be it through subreddits that exist for every niche imaginable (Yes, everysingle one) or Instagram accounts devoted to supporting certain—often marginalized—identities, there is no shortage of paths to a sense of belonging. I am not without friends in the real world, but there isn’t a single person around me who shares my fondness for East Asian languages. Fortunately, I’ve found my place in a thriving virtual community of language learners that I can actively contribute to via various platforms.
Yet I am no stranger to the downfalls of our heightened connectivity.
I see it everywhere: the toxicity that permeates much of the content we consume, the ease with which we can compare our lives to those of others, and the hours whiled away absorbing meaningless images we can scarcely remember the next day. Although I’ve had my fair share of sleepless nights spent aimlessly scrolling through my vapid, repetitive feed, I remain unconvinced that my life would be better off without social media.
After experiencing a rather abrupt mid-semester move from Ohio to Texas, I struggled with the kind of isolation and remoteness typical of new kids. Social media is said to exacerbate loneliness, but the connectivity it provided me was the means by which I coped with my own. The importance of familiarity when acclimating to an otherwise foreign environment cannot be overestimated. Perhaps if I had continued to rely solely on virtual interactions for a sense of fulfillment, social media would’ve become an unhealthy presence in my life. Instead, it proved to be the perfect distraction while I worked through the slow process of making new friends at school.
The problem with the current debate over social media’s effects is the false dichotomy accompanying it. Arguing that it is either the evil force ruining our youth or a flawless advance towards interconnectedness is just unproductive. The question should not be whether or not to use social media; completely abandoning what’s become such a ubiquitous force in our lives is both unrealistic for most and unlikely to improve the mental health crisis. We should instead be asking ourselves how to best establish a healthy relationship with social media that involves neither radical detoxes nor obsessive refreshing.
Social media is simply a tool that is not in and of itself good or bad; there is nothing inherently harmful about sharing our ideas for the world to see. Our inability to indulge in moderation is what’s hurting us. Sacrificing the meaningful connections, abundant inspiration, and thought-provoking discourse found on social media won’t do much to better our lives.
What will help is an earnest effort to achieve what this generation lacks most: balance.
Miller, Caroline, and Child Mind Institute. “Does Social Media Cause Depression?” Child Mind Institute, childmind.org/article/is-social-media-use-causing-depression/.