I hope the transition back to school went well for you and your students. As the Organization for Social Media Safety also returns to schools educating students and parents across the country, I find myself focused more than ever on our mission of making social media safe for everyone and what that means.
Most social media-related dangers that we protect against are concrete, episodic threats: cyberbullying, hate speech, trafficking, and violence. But, we also remain focused on better understanding and guarding against the more ambiguous, less easily defined, systemic threats that social media poses.
For example, we know intuitively that social media has fundamentally changed how our teens socialize and spend our time. Teens currently average 9 hours a day on their phones. And, when I ask parents to tell me what pops into their minds when I say “social media,” many picture a group of teens at a restaurant sitting together, yet all silently staring at their phones. We can safely assume that 15 years ago our imagining of this same group of young adults would likely have them talking and laughing together, perhaps a bit too loud.
But, of course, this revolution in how we are interacting is not just limited to teens. We see parents glued to their phones at parks, couples on dates sitting and scrolling, and families taking and posting selfies throughout their vacations. Certainly, so many of us are talking to each other less and scrolling, posting, tweeting, and DMing exponentially more and more.
Yet, we really do not know how this sea change in socializing is affecting us and our children. We are not sure if it is altering our happiness or life satisfaction. We can only guess at what it is doing to the durability and quality of our relationships. The available research is just too imprecise, and the change is still too recent.
Another example is social media’s clear impact on our politics. Having spent nearly a decade in Congress as a senior staffer both before and after the rise of social media, I have seen the impact directly from the front lines. Instead, of fostering discussions among and between different political ideologies, social media seems to have steered many of us towards simply trading posts and comments back and forth with those that most agree with us while shouting down, shaming, and blocking those that do not. Complex policy arguments have been boiled down to 160 character tweets. And, elected officials often battle for viral posts, not effective legislation. In my view, this has served to amplify politics and tribalism at the cost of a real exploration for policy solutions to the problems that confront us.
To be clear, the changes in our socializing and politics created by social media have not all been negative. Important issues and social concerns have gained traction in part because of social media exposure. We have reconnected with old friends and family. And, some elected officials have become more accessible to their constituents via social media. However, on the whole, we do not yet know whether these benefits outweigh the negatives
As one of our student advisors said last month, social media is here to stay. The Organization for Social Media Safety accepts this as fact and acknowledges the good that can come from social media. But, we have to better understand how social media is quietly changing society, so we can make sure that we are minimizing the dangers to us and our children.