When Marshall McLuhan, the 1960s guru of communication, declared, “The medium is the message,” he was talking about radio, TV, LP records, tape players and film. He probably never imagined Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, the internet and digital everything — cameras, video, podcasts, TED talks, viral GIFS, etc.
But he remains exactly right about one thing: Whatever the message, the platform upon which it is delivered shapes the meaning and impact of the message it contains.
Now, fast-forward to today. In lieu of full sentences, we get abbreviated texts, full of “LOL” and emojis.
All this is an intro to a question: Do social media’s enormous benefits and pleasures compensate for — or pale in comparison to — the harm it does to individuals and relationships?
The benefits of social media are well-studied and real. They range from encouraging artistic expression among folks who might not have thought to give it a try, to the instant fact-checking of politicians and encouragement of democracy. In addition, social media allows easy access to the world’s best authorities on everything from medicine to rock climbing, the opportunity for friends and families to stay in touch more easily, for older folks or those who are more socially isolated to reconnect with friends or join support groups, and for people from around to globe to feel part of a community in which similarities are more important than differences.
And those are just some of the wonders of the digital age enjoyed by around 3 billion folks worldwide — about 40 percent of the total population.
But research keeps pointing out how harmful getting immersed in social media can become. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents to be aware of the potential damage social media can do to their child’s mental health because of cyberbullying and what they call “Facebook depression.”
Additional research shows that girls age 10 who are active on social media are far more unhappy when they are adolescents than those who were not on social media at so early an age. While yet another study found that 11- to 17-year-olds find the pressure to be online 24/7 destroys their sleep and can cause anxiety and depression. There’s even research published in JAMA that indicates that for people who have no symptoms of ADHD, heavy use of social media may trigger the condition!
When you ask teens about the impact of social media on their lives, 24 percent say it’s mostly negative, 45 percent say it makes no difference, while only 31 percent say it’s positive. And mature adults don’t escape potential harm — especially if they’re already having mental health issues, are worried about their work or social status or become addicted to building networks.
The solution? Stay connected, but not obsessed. One study found that complete screen abstinence did not correlate with happiness either. The teens who were the happiest reported using digital devices a bit under an hour a day. So …
>> Limit your (or your child’s) time with social media (not including email) to 30-60 minutes daily.
>> Delete any site or app on which you experience bullying, criticisms or other negative interactions.
>> Make your account private so that you limit who can post comments and who you consider a friend. Stick with those folks who are, in fact, friends or members of a like-minded community.
>> No digital devices in the bedroom.
Social media is a tool, like a hammer that can build a beautifully crafted cabinet or a flimsy piece of junk. How it turns out is in your hands. Click wisely.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D., is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email questions to email@example.com.