Social media gets a bad press, but it was a lifeline for me
Studies suggest that using social media can develop empathy. Photograph: Alamy
Recent research from Sheffield University has suggested that the more time children aged between 10 and 15 spend on social media, the less happy they feel. Many of the headlines in response to this study focused on the idea that engaging with social media platforms makes children more likely to compare themselves negatively with their friends. Girls were found to suffer more adverse effects than boys, and in particular feel discontented with school and their appearance. The comparisons they made were overwhelmingly negative because, as the report explained, “the material people chose to present online represents selectively idealised versions of their true appearance, activities, and achievements”.
But while social media has its pitfalls, it also has benefits that the headlines rarely focus on. That same study found that, overall, social media can make children feel happier about their friendships. With girls especially, the study found that more time on social networks had a positive effect on how they felt about their friends. And other research, from North Florida University, suggests that chatting online via apps such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp could increase levels of empathetic concern for others, as it gives young people a chance to widen their perspectives and practise empathic responses. As a result, expressing empathy becomes habitual.
These findings complement those of a DePaul University study, which found that increased social media exposure allowed for more time in an environment that fostered feelings and expressions of empathy. This might be sharing a funny video to cheer up a friend or simply offering words of comfort.
The North Florida study also concluded that, rather than primarily being a platform for self-promotion, Facebook was first and foremost a tool for making social connections.
There has been evidence, too, to suggest that social media can help combat feelings of isolation. Research from Wisconsin-Madison University has found that young adults who regularly use social media while transitioning from home to university demonstrate lower levels of self-reported loneliness than those who don’t. Why? Because they use those platforms to adjust socially and maintain friendships.
I can vouch for the importance of Facebook in combating loneliness. I took a year out of university in the UK to study abroad in the US. This meant that when I returned to London for my final year, most of my peers had graduated. Meanwhile, I’d left behind my American cohort. The loneliness that came with managing the notoriously tough final year of a degree without either set of friends was nothing compared with what it could have been without social media. I was able to keep in touch with them all; excluded in the physical sense, yes, but with at least some connection. In lieu of taking new photographs, we re-posted old photographs, used Facebook Messenger to organise a return visit, and I watched their graduation ceremony through a live stream.
Six years on, Facebook has enabled me to maintain friendships – and Instagram and Snapchat have played a part too. I’m not a regular user of Twitter, but that platform also has benefits. Upon becoming self-employed two years ago I proudly printed business cards, but referring people to my Twitter is, in reality, far easier.
The finding that young people can be hurt as a result of comparing themselves to their peers online is an important one. Whatever your age, feeling not as popular, or funny, or perfect as the people you’re surrounded with can be damaging. For younger generations still struggling with how social media can make them feel, my advice is simple: remember that social media is often a highlights reel; not a no-holds-barred diary of every up and down in life. I don’t post about a blazing argument with my husband, or finding a mouldy pack of cream cheese in the back of the fridge. I post about days with my nieces and nephew, and nights out with friends, not the dull weekends in which I binge-watch Grey’s Anatomy and don’t bother getting dressed. Just because you can’t see those days in a person’s life, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
If you’re feeling oppressed by all the happy, smiling people on your Facebook page, limit the time you spend there. Don’t let yourself go down the rabbit hole; looking at photos of your friend’s aunt’s sister’s 2015 holiday to Magaluf at 2am is, let’s be honest, pretty weird. We should also back away from people who make us feel like rubbish online in the same way we do offline; carefully, but with conviction. Leave frenetic group chats; they’re nowhere near as crucial as you think they are. Trust your friends to let you know separately if something important happens. Every now and again, just turn your devices off. This acts as a good reminder that, despite what you may think, the world doesn’t burst into flames without them. Finally, keep your friend list to a realistic and manageable number. Can you really name all 1,300 of them? I didn’t think so.