With 3.5 billion users around the world, the presence of social media in our daily lives cannot be undermined. In recent times, there’s been a growing awareness of the various pitfalls of these mediums — whether in the form of data privacy breaches, cyber-bullying, social engineering attacks or social media addictions. As critics point out, these platforms are designed to manipulate. The manipulation takes various forms: complex algorithms design your feeds to be more reflective of your preferences to keep you scrolling for extended durations of time.
Artificial intelligence-powered advertising ensures that users are ‘recommended’ targeted products and services. The ease with which fake news is disseminated and absorbed on social platforms, when combined with the magnitude of devastation such misinformation can leave in its wake, begs the question of whether social media has outlived its purpose in the present world. Deleting social media is a popular sentiment that has (ironically) garnered trending hashtags on several social platforms; but ‘switching off’ from social platforms the miracle cure we are seeking? More importantly, is it even necessary?
You versus the machine
“Although the concept of your brain and persona being commoditised sounds terrifying in theory, it isn’t new or limited to digital platforms. In fact, this has existed since the invention of media and advertising. With digital platforms, the difference is that the way these ads are delivered to you are more targeted and the means are more intelligent,” points out Dr Sagar Mundada, a psychiatrist at Health Spring.
As Gautam S Mengele, executive editor at CySpy, says, “Social media is so designed to amplify your existing use of the digital space. Just as it is a means for spreading misinformation and fake news, it is also a powerful platform for advocacy and socialisation.” By catering to a very primal need of human beings, as a species, to connect and bond, social media essays a vital role in contemporary social interactions. But when it comes to information gathering, it is important to recognise that the picture that social media presents to us isn’t necessarily accurate or all-encompassing. It is also crucial to understand the potential for social media addiction.
Calling out the fakes
“Platform literacy is essential to protect your interests when using digital platforms,” says Prathamesh Sonsurkar, cyber crime expert and founder of WhiteHack OPC. He says that in most cases, users aren’t aware of the permissions they are agreeing to when clicking ‘I Agree’ to register on social media platforms. “If you are concerned about the ways in which your data is going to be used, you must be willing to invest that additional time to read the terms and conditions of use.”
Mangesh Sawant, senior vice president of RiskPro, suggests that instead of blindly believing everything you read or see on social platforms, it’s important to first conduct a preliminary check to safeguard yourself from fake news. “Before forming an opinion based on new articles, it’s important to verify the news by checking for sources and referring to fact-checking sites. Most of us jump to conclusions based on headlines alone, which are often intentionally attention-grabbing; read the entire story, while being aware of any biases. Look into opposing views and learn to distinguish opinion from fact,” he advises.
Many fake news websites will re-use old photos and publish them out of context. To understand if an image is being accurately represented, reverse-search the image. This will bring up a list of instances when that same image has been published on the internet, he adds. Finally, check when the article was published — older articles may not contain up-to-date facts and might have broken links. Individuals sharing an older article may discover that some information has been disproven or debunked.
Drawing the line
Deleting social media may be the only alternative if you are already addicted or have a personality that makes you more prone to addiction, says Dr Mundada. He suggests three criteria to determine your level of dependency on social media.
1. If denied social media for a certain period — this could range from an hour to a day — do you experience withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety or restlessness? Do you have trouble concentrating, become more prone to anger outbursts, or find yourself constantly reaching out for your phone?
2. Are you spending increasing amounts of time on social media? Like addiction to physical substances, addicts of social media develop tolerance over time. This means that they need increasing ‘doses’ of social media to experience the same high.
3. Does your social media use interfere with the quantity and quality of time you spend with your partner or family?
For most casual users, regulation and moderation is the key to ensure a healthy balance. Psychologist Priyanka Bajaria recommends the following steps.
1. Identify the problem. It is difficult to assess the exact time you spend online unless you monitor the same in a methodical way. Keep a Screen Time Diary and fill it every day. Review the average number of hours you spend online through the data you collect. Additionally, there are apps available to monitor the amount of time you spend on your phone or laptop.
2. Designate specific times to use social media as well as time slots during the day when you will refrain from using your devices. Spend at least one hour away from all your devices every day. During this time, observe how you feel — are you restless or uncomfortable? Make a note of these symptoms.
3. Mindful consumption is vital. Check the content you consume on social media — how does it make you feel? Is it adding any value to your life? Which pages do you visit the most? Categorise your online consumption into 'Healthy' and ‘Junk’, just as you would with food. Try and eliminate the items from your ‘Junk’ list (unfollow, unsubscribe, or delete). Go on a weekly cleanse once a month.
4. Identify your needs that your use of social media is fulfilling and replace it with an offline activity. For example, if spending time on Instagram is fulfilling your need for interpersonal connection, then try and meet your friends more often or take an extra effort to speak to your colleagues during working hours. During the pandemic, you can plan video-calls with friends.
5. Delay gratification. Social media apps are designed to appease to your impulses and provide instant gratification. Deliberately delay gratification to regulate your usage. For example, if you have an impulse to check your phone as soon as you wake up, wait for five minutes before you check it. Keep increasing the time until you reach a desirable number.
Actor Donal Bisht emphasises the need to use social media constructively during the pandemic. Instead of regarding all social media use as unproductive, she has been using these platforms to launch campaigns to raise mental health awareness. “My first campaign was ‘Open up to Donal’, where I urged people to share their problems with me. I found that many people were feeling emotionally low during the lockdown. The campaign received a great response and I received multiple messages thanking me for this initiative. Another campaign was ‘Pledge to be Positive’, which was adopted by many social media users and celebrities. I found that I could use social media to raise awareness about causes that matter to me and engage multiple people in meaningful conversations,” she says.