The dangers of excessive social media use
— Is it a cause of social cancer?

Is Social Media the new nicotine and are we seeing a new breed of cigarette Barons denying its addictive?

I was sitting in a Better by Design Conference a week ago listening to a North American woman evangelising on the merits of social media and the fact that we as adults better understand ‘The Millennials’ generation coming through and their active use of social media in all its forms. The presentation came to a crescendo warning of opportunity, with a call to action that the “future is now”. However, the applause wasn't quite as resounding as the previous speakers.

Was it because of the nagging doubts of some, including myself, as to the social impact of these things on our youth? I should've stood up and said something, but frankly I was dumbstruck by her unashamedly commercial earnestness devoid of any mention of a ‘social conscience’. For me the presentation could've been written by Facebook's PR machine, in fact I believe she is married to the Vice President of product development for Google, so there you go!

She didn't mention once, the moral dilemma we might have about those promoting brands and the potential misuse of these modern media techniques in idealising our products and services. After all, how many youth brands do you see currently promoting the smoking of cigarettes? Of course the tide has turned in terms of cigarette advertising due to a more cancer conscious community. But presently I don't think anyone yet is putting up any markers in the space of social media and its potential impact on youth behaviour.

Are the Mark Zuckerberg’s of this world the new tobacco Barons? After all, Facebook is about as addictive as Marlboro cigarettes. It’s the new nicotine for 800 million people, and that’s growing every day, so will we wake up one day with a new kind of cancer? Social ineptness creates a dangerous world for the vulnerable, one of human insecurity and depression. Indeed Prozac could well become Facebook’s best friend. Zuckerberg was an anti-authoritarian at Harvard who, through some combination of outmaneuvering, technical wizardry and intuition, became the guy in charge. But can we trust the anti-authoritarian once he becomes the authority?

How evil is Facebook? Should we think of it as your life going down the drain while you spend hours casually stalking other people's lives. One third of UK divorcees cite the evils of Facebook. A recent survey found that one third of married couples splitting up in the UK last year mention Facebook as a co-star in their divorces. Facebook: is there anything it can't help fuck up?

All too frequently do we read news of yet another tragic end to a young life in New Zealand - from suicide, vehicle accident or binge drinking? International statistics show that young people in New Zealand do poorly on many measures relative to those in other developed countries.

While most of our young people cope well with the transition to adulthood, the passage through adolescence for at least 20 percent of young New Zealanders will have long-term consequences. Adolescents are more than consumers of digital media; they are actors who use technology to pursue personal goals. It offers them greater potential anonymity. They feel safer within the confines of the Internet also. Researchers tell us that they become less inhibited online.

Over 60 percent of primary and secondary school students in New Zealand in a recent survey reported being bullied at some point in the past year — verbal and social aggression more often using interactive technology. Online aggression including bullying, spreading rumours, posting inappropriate images and content are emerging in recent studies where social media tools are used to damage the reputation of friendships of a targeted individual.

Sir Peter Gluckman, New Zealand’s Science Advisor to government produced a mental health report last year entitled Improving the Transition. The report points out that adolescence is now a prolonged period, as the age of puberty has fallen and the age at which young people are accepted as adults has risen. Brain maturation is not complete until well into the third decade of life, and the last functions to mature are those of impulse control and judgment. Yet it may surprise many readers to learn that early childhood is the critical period in which the fundamentals of self-control are established. Gluckman reports that children who do not adequately develop these abilities in early life are more likely to make poor decisions during adolescence, given the inevitable exposures to risk in the teenage years.

An OECD report on child poverty confirms New Zealand has the highest rate of suicide in the developed world. The report suggests suicide rates for New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 19 years are well ahead of countries such as Ireland, Canada and the United States. It ranked New Zealand 29th out of its 30 members for children's health and safety, just beating Turkey.

It's not an aversion to these new technologies for me, but I worry that our children don't go out and play anymore. Rather it seems they choose to spend their time plugged into the Internet, gaming, surfing or chatting to friends. Will they be less capable in the future of making friends in the physical sense? Can they handle rejection in the first person? Will they have a warped sense of reality and be fed idealised scenarios, which will only disappoint them in the real world when they try to reenact or confront them?

Americans now spend as much time online as they do in front of the television, with one third of that time spent on social networks alone. In South Korea, the most connected nation on earth around 1 in 10 people are addicted to the web and psychologists have stated that there is a strong link between the use of the web its social media tools and depression. According to a recent BBC survey, the current generation of digital natives will spend an astounding 10,000 hours online before they become adults. 

I worry that my new grandson will grow up in a cyber world society where I will no longer be able to enjoy precious moments with him, without our time together being invaded by the intrusion of technology. Will it be a world for him where real interaction takes second place to that on Facebook? You see people at dinner parties, birthdays, weddings that are heavily into social media using their mobile where they never seem to be present entirely in the moment. I'm not convinced yet that meaningful social bonds can be built in this abbreviated way and at arm's-length. I'm worried that language may suffer, as we get more and more used to txt speaking and the ubiquitous PowerPoint with its monosyllabic dot points.

You may have already tired of this blog post and “ bounced” me out of your mind space. Maybe you’ll be speed-reading or skimming, but it's unlikely that you're really taking in what I'm talking about or thinking it through. I feel we are losing our ability to consider things and more importantly we are sacrificing individual IQ for collective intelligence. Where will the next big deep thinkers come from and does the social web kill individual genius? I am saddened by the fact that we are fast breeding a culture where individual intelligence is sacrificed for the all-powerful global brain.

Of course social media is a fantastic tool and allows us to share like never before. But we as a race are at risk of becoming more and more communicative through those 140 characters online; bouncing across short news items, ignoring the editorials that help us form opinions of our own. And, as our children spend more time online, I think we are creating a society that knows lots about little, but little about lots.