Social Media - is this the current 'opiate of the people'?

Social Media – is this the current ‘opiate of the people’?

I can remember at school being told that ‘TV was the new opiate of the people’ by which I think my teacher was trying to say that we were watching too much of it and not getting our homework done.

This has me wondering about the effects of social media (SM). It is often cast as today’s villain of choice, much as TV was at the end of the last millennium and novels were in the late 1700’s; but is it worthy of this opprobrium?

As my field is counselling I will discount the fakery and political machinations and focus on how it influences the mental health of children and young adults.

Undeniably our Millennials have a world of information at their fingertips and have grown up to understand its efficacy, learning to balance convenience with scepticism. Undoubtedly it is easier to make comparisons to help judge and appraise; situations, opinions, products etc. Party and event planning, sharing of experiences, international relations....etc the list goes on and all for the good.

Why then do I see so many young people for whom SM has become their ‘opiate’ – addictive, numbing, destructive and possibly life limiting?

Three key factors stand out:

1.       No closure to activity

2.       Fatigue

3.       Peer relationships

‘Closure’...the pop-psychology cliché has its roots in neurophysiology. The brain likes to physically store completed actions (thoughts, emotions etc) differently from on-going activity as the latter needs to be accessed more immediately. They sit in different parts of the brain.

The end of a good book, a competed project, journey’s end...we know the feeling. Phew! Relief and pleasure. Conversely we have all experienced the anxiety associated with an unfinished task; an incomplete conversation, a half understood explanation, an unresolved argument. These continue to revolve, awaiting completion and the chance to become a fixed memory; all the while using up energy.

The nature of Facebook, Snapchat et al is that they are seemingly endless. They are built to keep you clicking! There are billions of posts that will be served up, if you have the time to read them.  The elephant in the room though, is the ‘social’ pressure to respond within a group so as to not cause offence, to fall out of a group chat, to be unfriended. Many of my clients cannot sleep, or suddenly awake as if to a baby’s cry, each time their phone beeps as another message arrives (relevant or not).

Further information on processing activity -

No wonder fatigue is so commonplace.

In the December 2018 BACP Children, Young People and Families magazine, Sarah Hayward eloquently describes in her article ‘Friendship. It’s changing face in a digital age’ the role of peer relationships. Using the term ‘Ubiquitous Relating’, she explains the effects of

‘Relational ‘work’ that happens everywhere and all the time, even when the people involved are separated in space and time’

She writes

‘...In the 21st century, we now have real-time and constant access to our outside-of-ourselves, ‘In Real Life’ connections. Our gadgets keep us relationally available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Not only to peers, colleagues and more distant acquaintances – even to total strangers.

Young people tell me that this is exhausting and that it can feel impossible to ignore the ‘ping’ of incoming social media notifications......20% of young people saying that they wake during the night to check messages....’

Our internal relationships, once mostly private and personal are now exposed and with us everywhere. The workings of our own and others relationships are there for all to see, should they wish. This transparency may at times be good but does have the potential to lead to bullying, unrealistic expectations, poor self image. The opportunity exists for the equivalent of the medieval ‘stocks’, shaming non-compliance. How do you explain being ‘unfriended’?

It is a subject that will be considered in many doctorates including those for history and anthropology. My conclusion, for what it is worth, is that SM has to be treated as a factor of growing up – like TV for me or the novel in the 18th century. Parents must take responsibility in the first instance. Developing resilience and self-esteem will give young children the sense to turn the device off with the confidence that they will be liked/loved/listened to/respected etc whether or not they respond to a ping at 4:30am. It won’t be the last challenge to confront parents by any means.