For better or for worse, social media has helped shape the lives of members of the Millennial generation (of which I am at the older end). Social media has opened new avenues of communication and connection that were impossible for earlier generations. It also has shaped how we view our peers and the world around us, as we gaze through the lens of what people choose to share on social media. Thirty-six percent of Millennials surveyed by the American Psychological Association in 2017 thought that social media had helped them find their identity. Sixty-three percent of Millennials in the same survey reported that they felt attached to their smartphone or tablet.  These were the highest percentages of any age group. The ease of accessing Facebook through mobile apps can make tablets and smartphones a conduit to social media dependency. Worldwide, there are more than 1.8 billion active Facebook users, and 58.3 million active Facebook users in the United States between the ages of 25-34 (part of the Millennial generation.)  There continues to be debate about the age range of Millennials, but the Pew Research Center (an authority on such matters) this year defined Millennials as anyone born between 1981 and 1996 (a 15-year age range). 
At the McAllen Public Library, part of our mission is to promote “the open exchange of ideas through free access to information and connect a culturally diverse population with the global community.” Part of how we do this is by providing free access to computers and the internet, through which patrons can connect to social media, and thereby the global community. But what effects does social media have on our lives?
Social media has become a huge part of Millennial lives, but what is its effect on our state of mind? How does it affect our happiness and stress levels? What are the benefits and risks of social media use? Do the benefits outweigh the risks? Are there ways to maintain the benefits while also minimizing the risks? I will focus here on Facebook and Instagram, which are the two most popular social media platforms among Millennials.
The benefits of Facebook for regular users who are not public figures are that it (1) enables them to connect with others very easily and (2) strengthens their social networks. Once the online connection is formed, users can see each other’s posts and profiles and send each other messages. Geographical distance is no longer a barrier, and moving away is no longer a reason for friendships to wither. I have friends from earlier in my life who now live across the globe, but we remain connected by Facebook. We still know what is happening in each other’s lives and can communicate easily. Facebook also fosters the formation of new friendships. If two people meet and have a friendly conversation in person, they can become “Facebook friends” and continue getting to know each other without having to wait for their next meeting. The social benefits of Instagram are the same as Facebook, except that information is shared in strictly photographic format: users see glimpses of each other’s lives and artistic endeavors.
On both Facebook and Instagram, receiving “likes” and comments on your posts is reassurance that people remember you and care about what you do. Adults who are busy with careers, families, and school often live socially isolated lives, and these small online reassurances are a comfort. They are a reminder that you are part of a much larger network, even if you feel alone. In fact, a 2016 study found that active online social lives can lead to a longer life, much as active in-person social lives are known to do. “People with more friends online are less likely to die than their disconnected counterparts… This evidence contradicts assertions that social media have had a net-negative impact on health.”  In other words, the form of the conduit for social connections does not matter; what counts is having the social connection.
On a more global scale, the most significant benefit of Facebook is that it can connect people with shared causes and beliefs. For example, the “Arab Spring” of a few years ago was enabled by social media. In authoritarian countries where there is censorship and restriction of communication and travel, people usually can still use social media to connect and organize politically. They can also use it to communicate to the outside world atrocities happening in their countries. This is how many atrocities occurring in the Syrian civil war have been revealed to the rest of the world. Social media can be a tool for change.
The flip side of these benefits is that social media also can be used to organize and empower groups with evil intentions. For example, terrorist organizations like ISIS can use social media to lure vulnerable recruits from around the world. Hostile foreign governments can use it to subvert free elections, both domestic and internationally. Social media is a double-edged sword, and its power must be wielded carefully.
With respect to the lives of individuals, there are three important drawbacks to heavy social media use. The first is that, for users like myself who follow many news outlets, the constant barrage of articles about bad things happening around the world increases stress. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research Center report found that,
“There are circumstances under which the social use of digital technology increases awareness of stressful events in the lives of others. Especially for women, this greater awareness is tied to higher levels of stress and it has been called ‘the cost of caring.’ Stress is not associated with the frequency of people’s technology use, or even how many friends users have on social media platforms. But there is one way that people’s use of digital technology can be linked to stress: Those users who feel more stress are those whose use of digital tech is tied to higher levels of awareness of stressful events in others’ lives.” 
In other words, although it is good and important to be aware of world events, and Facebook is a convenient way of doing this, it can cause an increased level of stress.
The second drawback of heavy social media use is that users create bubbles around themselves and the information they receive. On social media, users see only news articles posted by outlets they follow and by their friends, which may or may not be reliable. During the 2016 United States presidential election, many fraudulent news stories were shared on Facebook. Although Facebook is now in the early stages of remediating this problem, at the time Facebook had no policy or method of filtering false news stories. Facebook and other social media outlets were used by organizations affiliated with the Russian government (like the “Internet Research Agency”) to influence our election by creating fake profiles, posting fake news stories, and “liking” certain posts to boost their status in Facebook’s algorithms and increase their visibility in users’ news feeds.  Some Facebook users believed these fraudulent news stories, and because of the bubble effect on Facebook, they did not see legitimate news stories from reputable sources.
The third drawback of heavy social media use is “FOMO,” or the “Fear of Missing Out.” It is the perception that all of one’s peers on social media have more fun, interesting, and successful lives than you, and that you are not where you should be in life and are “missing out.” However, appearances can be deceiving. People who experience FOMO have the impression that “everyone” is doing so much better than themselves. If they count the number of Facebook and Instagram friends who regularly post celebratory photos, however, they will realize that it is only a handful out of a network of hundreds of friends. That means that there are hundreds of friends who are not posting about engagements/weddings/babies/vacations. It only seems as though “everyone” is more successful because users naturally only post about the good things in their lives. Social media users do not post about breakups, divorces, fights, and problems at work. The result is that most users’ posts become like a highlight reel of their lives. This is completely normal: social media is part of how you present yourself to the world, and making a good impression is important. It is good and healthy to celebrate each other’s success and share in the joy of others. But it is important to remember that even those peers who seem to be in a constant state of bliss have problems just like you, about which they do not post.
The benefits and risks of social media use are both significant. Whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks is a personal decision. For most modern Millennials, however, quitting social media is not a real option. Social media use is often a requirement for jobs, and quitting it would mean not being able to fulfill certain professional responsibilities. That, in turn, could mean lack of career advancement, or worse. Luckily, there are ways to moderate social media use so as to maintain the social benefits while minimizing the stress-related negative effects.
Ways to moderate social media use:
- Do not open the app or log on after a certain time at night.
- Disable social media app notifications on mobile devices.
- Alternately, delete the app completely from mobile devices, so that you can only use the web version.
- Take a break by temporarily hiding your profile without deleting your account. Facebook and Instagram both have ways of doing this very easily.
- Clean out your friends list by removing people who you do not actually know, or whose posts you do not enjoy. You do not have any obligation to keep following them.
- Clean out the pages you follow. If a certain page posts only things that you find stressful and do not enjoy or learn from, delete it.
- Do not get into comment wars, either on public posts or friends’ posts. You are not going to change anyone’s mind, and are upsetting only yourself.
- Do not read comments on public posts. They are often written by internet trolls for the sole purpose of sparking outrage.
- Disable Facebook game requests.
- Do not use social media during work time, unless it is for work purposes.
- Do not use social media during dinner time. Set dinner time aside as a “mobile device free” interlude.
- Keep a written record of how many minutes you spend on social media each day, and set a limit.
Society has always worried about the negative effects of any technological innovation. During the Industrial Revolution, people worried about the loss of employment through mechanization. When television became commonplace in homes, people worried that it would cause children to be lazy. When video games became commonplace, people worried that they would cause children to fail in school. When electronic books became commonplace, people worried that they meant the end of the print book industry. None of this came to pass. Anything taken to the extreme is unhealthy, but humans usually moderate their behavior to minimize this risk. Social media is proving to be the next example. It has changed our way of life, and if taken to an extreme is harmful, but in moderation it can be used as a tool to strengthen our social ties and connect us to the rest of the world.
To Learn More at the Library:
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz
It’s Complicated : The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd
Dataclysm : Who we are* *when we think no one’s looking by Christian Rudder
The New Arabs : How the millennial generation is changing the Middle East by Juan Ricardo Cole