Is Social Media Designed to Harm Us?

Kalina Stamatova

I have a dirty, shameful secret that I want to talk about. I read people’s incendiary comments under news articles on social media. It’s making me unhappy. But am I the one with the issue here, or is this the way social media works?

That social media is unhealthy isn’t exactly what I would call ground-breaking news. Researchers measuring the impact of Facebook on our well-being found that not only did it affect our mental and physical health negatively, but that its effect only increased over time. Another study showed that positive experiences on social media do not, in fact, make people feel happier. However, since we tend to assign greater weight to negative experiences, it in turn magnifies sad feelings. 

This is a psychological phenomenon called negativity bias—the notion that things of a negative nature have a greater effect on our psyche than positive or neutral ones do, even when they’re equally intensive. Negativity bias is not an inherently bad thing—from an evolutionary point of view, it has helped humans learn from experience and adapt in order to survive. If you play with fire, you will get burnt. And then you won’t do it again. 

Things get a lot more complicated when it comes to our media consumption. The results of a 2020 study showed that, in the early months of the Covid-19 outbreak, the use of online media was significantly associated with an increase in stress, anxiety, and depression. I went through a similar thing—doom-scrolling for hours, hoping that today would be the day when we’d hear some good news.

Some studies argue that it’s not the use of social media that’s the problem, rather the poor quality of interactions that causes us to feel worse. It’s true that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provide a number of different ways to interact with others, be it via private messaging, writing on someone’s wall, or liking someone’s post. Until a few years back, you could even “poke” others on Facebook. Merely trying to decipher the enigmatic meaning of “poking” deserves an analysis of its own, so I will not delve into it here.

But no matter what social media giants are trying to tell you, I don’t think social media can offer a better quality of interaction than it already does. Social media is not built in a way that promotes cordial, constructive, or nuanced conversation. For every post that my mother or boyfriend shares, there is a slew of “Suggested For You” articles that are nowhere near relevant to me, sponsored ads, or grim but clickbaity articles about the state of affairs. For every message I look forward to, there are a thousand horrid tweets from malicious troll farms. The goal of social media isn’t to help people establish a genuine connection. It’s to keep them engaged. And if that means the algorithm showing them disturbing, or outright false content, then it will. A recent example comes to mind: a 2021 study has established that both pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine Youtube videos were more likely to lead the viewer to more anti-vax videos than the other way around. 

Can people actually use social media to connect with their peers meaningfully? Perhaps in an ideal world. But for now, the closest thing we can do is create an echo chamber of assenting voices.

Illustration by Shikha Tiwari

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