*This is an adaptation of a post that first appeared on Rescu.
I have been working online for 22 years. When I started Mark Zuckerberg was 12 years old. There was no social media. There were no smart phones. ‘Email’ as we know it now was pretty new. (How old do I feel?)
I’ve watched the Internet become our information go-to. I work online, I socialise online and I learn online. I tell my kids that we’ll ‘Google’ answers to vexing questions. They can’t imagine a life without YouTube and wonder why wifi stops at our front gate.
I’ve long forgotten the days in which you phoned the bank to get your account balance and paid bills by posting a cheque. The Internet and social media have emerged as life’s information, communication and everyday functional platform in one generation.
Yet many of us fear the online world. We worry about shrinking attention, cyber bullying, the neglect of ‘real’ relationships. Social media has been rated as one of parents’ greatest fears.
Research into the effects of social media and living life online is still in its infancy. There’s little doubt that there are risks but psychologists are beginning to understand that the Internet, when used well, can be helpful to our wellbeing, our kids, our relationships and our world.
Teaching our kids
When school starts we expect phones and online devices to be put away and kids to pay attention to the face-to-face world, but what if social media improves the classroom experience?
We know from research that older students do best when they can work together in small groups; they are more engaged, they are better prepared for class and they learn more than the kids who work on their own. Using online apps and social media can enhance this. Hashtags are used to discuss specific topics, kids draw on their peers’ knowledge and ideas to collaborate and learn. It’s a representation of the real world and the workplaces for which they’re preparing.
Now a study from Harvard School of Education suggests that using social media to create ‘virtual study groups’ in the classroom might just be cool enough to get younger kids more involved in their schoolwork. I know my boys loves Mathletics, not due to an inherent love of maths but because they can compete with other students all over the world. Social school work is fun.
Making the world a kinder place
When the heartbreaking photo of drowned three year old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, whose body washed ashore near the Turkish resort of Bodrum, swept the Internet in September 2015 the world sat up and took notice. Twitter tags in Turkish, English and Arabic emerged, calling for greater understanding of the refugees’ plight. Forgiveness was sought for failing children and countries were lobbied to open their borders.
This issue was always going to receive mainstream media coverage but it was social media that allowed global conversations to take place; conversations between individuals. Conversations about compassion.
Closer to home, writers and bloggers like Carly Findlay use the online world as a platform for advocacy and greater understanding of topics such as disability and diversity. Findlay challenges people’s thinking about what it’s like to have a visibly different appearance and she does it in a way that is both educational and engaging. Social media gives Findlay a forum for engaging the community, challenging perceptions and increasing understanding of another person’s experience that may not otherwise exist.
Saving our sanity and our relationships
The naysayers will argue that social media leads to isolation and the destruction of ‘real life’ relationships but the evidence suggests otherwise.
A survey by the Australian Psychological Society revealed that many Australians have attended more get-togethers with friends and family as a result of social networking, not less. Online communities allow for like-minded individuals to connect and bond over shared interests instantly and globally, and research presented at the annual American Psychological Association conference found that introverted teens can gain and develop their social skills by using social media, allowing them to then go out and function better in the face-to-face world.
Strong, successful relationships and connectedness with other people are known to be one of the most important factors in our happiness, wellbeing and mental health and the online world appears to be enhancing these opportunities rather than destroying them.
There’s even some evidence that couples who meet online are more likely to have satisfying and successful marriages than those who meet face to face.
Opening eyes and minds
It’s probably true that most people who get into arguments on social media, particularly on topics like politics, are looking for others to tell them how right they are, not change their mind. It just might be, however, that in some situations social media can help us to open our minds to other possibilities, other arguments, and to see the world from a different perspective. Now that has to be a good thing.
Tips for healthy social media use
Stay balanced – Too much of anything is not good for you. If you find yourself scrolling through your phone at every available opportunity make a conscious decision to put it down, stretch and go for a walk, chat to someone or ….
Think – Not everything you read online is true. You know that. Make sure you’re thinking critically about what you read and whether that information is really relevant to you and your situation.
Step away from the argument – We all enjoy a bit of outrage every once in a while but you don’t need to attend every argument you’re invited to. If you know you’re inclined to say things on social media that you later regret, take a deep breath and step away.
Switch off before bed – It’s tempting to tuck yourself into bed and pick up the phone for that last little check on your social networks. Don’t do it! Device use before bed distracts you from getting to sleep and leads to lower quality sleep. For the sake of a great day tomorrow, switch off and slumber.
What scares you most about the online world?