Six of one, half a dozen of the other. The good and the bad of social media sort of cancel each other out. Right? In other words, the bad stuff is effectively neutralized by the good; so, there’s nothing to be done. Well, I’m not buying it, not yet.
In the past six months I’ve been forced to veer sharply to the right on S.R. 73 as oncoming cars drifted over the central line, piloted by “oops-I’m-sorry” drivers waving their apologies with an arm extended to a hand clenching their cell phones. Reports of head-on collisions in Highland County by this newspaper attest to the fact that this deadly behavior is not uncommon. It’s actually frightening.
I’ve written before about my worries that much of family history, along with biographical information, will dissolve into the digital ether because the rising generation has for the most part given up the habit of writing letters. I can even report that one of my family’s millennials texted home one day to inquire about where one went to purchase stamps for a document needed to be sent for a job search.
The devastating effects of bullying and character smearing that happens behind the “faceless” shields of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are well known. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control provides some interesting and troubling insights into behavior trends among teenagers. The data show that among teens, cigarette smoking, vaping along with alcohol use is down over the past three years. Down also is sexual behavior and television time.
But in that same period of time, smartphone, tablet, computer or game console use is up over 140 percent among girls and 165 percent among boys. Concurrently, over the past two years, those feeling sad or hopeless, those having seriously considered suicide, made a plan for or attempted suicide is up sharply. Further, according to the CDC, as reported in the New York Times, in the past decade emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries of those between the ages of 10 and 19 are up over 100 percent, but among girls those visits are up 130 percent (data since 2009).
Developmentally, it’s tough to explore one’s identity from behind the screen of a smartphone, especially when fellow peers are throwing digitized emotional bombs with impunity from behind their own digital shields. Psychologists are quick to point out how important interactive face time is for people, but especially for those in the emotional developmental stages of life.
I’ve sadly concluded that it’s probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that in this brave new digital world, privacy has become an extinct province of the past.
Then, of course, there are the digital toxins of disinformation and misinformation for which there are currently no known instantaneous antidotes. Adults can choose to believe whatever they want to believe. They have been endowed in our liberal society with such privileges, even if those beliefs lead them down rabbit holes. But for vulnerable teens, digital disinformation or mean misinformation can be confusing or worse, devastating.
Ukrainians are feeling the effects of digital curses on a daily basis. Their cultural brethren in Russia are in Putin’s digital bubble and are told that Ukrainians are Nazis, that Putin is defending the motherland, and that no hospitals, schools, kindergartens or civilians are being targeted. If Moscow’s controlled and quarantined world of disinformation says so, it must be true. Not so for a mother in Kyiv.
At home in the USA, to what degree are the disturbingly divisive partisan echo chambers a result of the digital enclaves that have developed over the past decade. I’ll let readers decide that for themselves, but if our democracy were to undergo a non-partisan health checkup by bona fide, good-faith doctors of democracy, I fear the diagnosis and prognosis would not be good.
To be fair, social media has helped to shed light on injustices, saved lives, been instrumental in distance learning, helped to promote worthwhile causes, and helped people to find jobs. But I can’t stop thinking about what might have happened to my wife and me if I hadn’t been alert to the two distracted drivers on 73, or about the frightening links between heavy social media use and depression, anxiety, loneliness, drug use and suicidal behaviors, especially among teens. Fears of a grandfather. Or of the digital lies being broadcast around the world from Imperial Russia.
But at home, what can we do? A recognition by parents of the potential toxicity of social media is a good place to dig in to recognize potential antidotes. Note: Actions by adults speak louder than words. Life skills have been the primary responsibility of parents since the beginning of time and will be ad infinitum. The digital age is here to stay yet parents have to be an evolving bulwark against these curses of social media.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.