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Experts weigh in on all the pokes, posts, and pictures that make up social media.
For 20-year-old Katie Lehman, Peach is not just a fruit. The social media app — a cross between Facebook and Twitter with the ability to send boops and cake to your squad — represents the latest and greatest in social media. And though Lehman couldn’t really pinpoint what makes Peach different than Facebook or Twitter, she felt compelled to join after seeing a friend do so. After only a few hours, she’s not convinced it’ll take off, but she wanted to try it out, “just in case.”
To say that social media is a major part of Lehman’s life is an understatement. Not only does she quickly admit to belonging to “basically every social media site,” but also she’s studying digital studies and communications at the University of Michigan, where she is a junior, and hopes to pursue a career in social media marketing.
“Most of my summer was spent tweeting and scheduling tweets,” she says of her previous marketing internship with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization.
Lehman starts her day by checking Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and estimates she spends around four hours on Facebook over the course of a day. Though she’s occasionally mortified by things she posted online five years ago, Lehman says social media helps her keep tabs on old friends, reconnect with extended family, and document her life in moments — big and small.
While she’s concerned about privacy and procrastination, for now Lehman is confident that social media’s benefits outweigh any potential danger this kind of engagement could pose to her physical or mental health.
For those less certain, the question still remains: Where should the line be drawn?
Dr. David Rosenberg, chairman of psychiatrics at Wayne State University, says there’s no magic number of hours per day or week at which social media use is healthy or unhealthy. Working primarily with children and adolescents, he says it’s important to examine the relationship each person has with their social network to ensure that they’re in control.
“We’ve been giving increasing attention to the extraordinary resource and tremendous support system social networking sites can provide people, particularly teens, when used in moderation,” he says. “The key is to examine that relationship and make sure that social media is the servant and the person using it is the master, not the other way around.”
While he says face-to-face interaction still remains the most reliable means of communication, Rosenberg believes that social media can help people make and foster meaningful connections, and can even be “life-saving” for people struggling with their mental health.
As social media continues to be an increasingly prevalent aspect of many people’s lives, Rosenberg adds that mental health professionals must now confront issues that didn’t exist a decade ago, as “misuse” of these sites can exacerbate anxiety and depression, especially for the emotionally vulnerable.
He defines social media addiction as the point where a person can’t physically detach themselves from their online networks and doing so impedes aspects of their normal life, including maintaining offline relationships and performance at work or school. Rosenberg estimates that around 1 percent of the patients he sees are addicted to social media, and he anticipates that number will only increase as these networks show no signs of going away.
Rosenberg encourages parents to be aware of the relationship their children and teens have with social media and ensure that the sites they have access to are developmentally and age appropriate, and that they’re using them to have positive interactions with others. In addition to social media’s addictive qualities, he says the unfiltered nature of many sites adds to the emotional risk factors, especially for at-risk populations.
“There’s a whole host of emotional factors that come into play on social media, including embarrassment or fear of judgment,” Rosenberg says. “People also tend to feel a lot bolder and disinhibited when communicating online, and they can say or do things they’d never do in person. When this is ignored, it can be devastating.”
Because smartphones put social media at your fingertips at virtually all times, Rosenberg encourages people to weigh the risks and benefits of their online experiences. Virtual communities should feel like they’re supplementing your interpersonal skills and relationships, not replacing them.
Snapchat is a popular app that’s often criticized as being narcissistic and superficial, but according to Joseph Bayer’s research, people report being highly satisfied with it, second only to face-to-face interaction. Though the app’s videos and pictures may only exist for a few seconds, Bayer has studied the app extensively while working on his doctorate in communications studies at the University of Michigan.
“We’ve found that Snapchat fills the void for people to share little moments without the risks involved with posting on Facebook or Twitter,” he says. “Those sites tend to be more focused on managing identities and how you look to your friends and family, but with Snapchat the mood tends to be more positive.”
Because any pictures sent via Snapchat are temporary, Bayer believes people feel more entitled to share the little moments throughout their day, which he says deserve a place in social media. He agrees that face-to-face communication with friends and family are always going to have the biggest impact, but that brief interactions can be beneficial as well.
While Bayer knows that Snapchat likely won’t save the world, he’s encouraged that research indicates people who use the app have fewer self-presentational concerns. (Not too shabby for an app centered on sending close-up selfies to your nearest and dearest for a few seconds.)
“We don’t know yet if technologies are positive or negative, because they can help, but there are risks involved,” he says. “It’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of social media, but we’re not actually getting rid of them.”