There has been considerable discussion recently about the damaging effects of social media on young people, giving many feelings of inadequacy as they compare themselves unfavorably with their alleged peers, even though some of those peers may be presenting a false image of themselves as having it all together and living the good life. This is especially the case with so-called ‘influencers’, those who go to great lengths to market themselves in the best possible light, almost making it a full-time job. The people who have something positive to say about their lives will usually talk more about it than those who are not having it so good, and so it would be easy to fall into the trap of feeling that everyone is having a better time that you
Kevin Drum has an thought-provoking post about the role of the internet in creating this problem. At least, it provoked my thinking enough to feel the need to comment on it.
The internet has a tendency to bifurcate things. Most famously, I believe that the internet makes smart people smarter and dumb people dumber. Smart people, who have the background and context to manipulate search engines and other tools can become far more productive and less error-prone than in the past. Dumb people, by contrast, are more likely to be taken in by scams and conspiracy theories. They end up dumber than if they’d never logged on.
The same is true for teens and social media: it makes the popular ones more popular and the lonely ones more lonely. It’s pretty easy to see how this happens. Popular teens have always had multiple outlets to improve their popularity—school, parties, cliques, etc.—but social media gives them even more. Conversely, unpopular kids now have yet another group to be shut out of.
The problem with the first paragraph is that everyone will think that they belong to the smart group and that they have become smarter and that those who disagree with them are the stupid ones.. For example, those who believe in QAnon conspiracies no doubt think that they are the smart ones who have seen through the official coverups because they read so many things on the internet that supported their view while I (who of course also put myself in the smart group) think that the internet has made them stupider. So while Drum’s idea may be correct, we will have a hard time finding evidence to support it.
However, the second paragraph strikes me as testable. There are fairly objective measures that can be used to determine whether one is popular or not and even without using them, I am pretty sure that most teens can accurately gauge which group they fall into. But what can they do with that awareness? It seems futile to try and change one’s personality and behavior so that one becomes more popular. That would be chasing a mirage and likely make one even unhappier.
More promising would be to arrive at the realization that popularity is not all that it is cracked up to be, that one can be happy with just a few friends, even one or two, and some interesting activities. Of course, such a realization is easier when one is an adult and the pressures of one’s peer group are not as overwhelming.