The Pros and Cons of Social Media

I’ve met two different kinds of people when it comes to opinions about social media.

On the one hand, we have the social-media-is-the-god-of-modernity people. These are the people who live on Twitter or Instagram, the people who defend the existence of the internet by pointing out that it is a part of society that isn’t going away, and so we should not only get used to it, but get good at it. These are the people who think of social media as something that will be of growing importance, something that you must understand in order to function in the world.

And then, on the other hand, we have the social-media-is-the-gateway-to-hell people. The people who don’t have anything more than an email account because everything else is pointless at best and opening you up to being stalked at worse. The people who worry about children getting a hold of social media because they are not capable of enough critical thinking to realize that they shouldn’t share private information with strangers, or send out images of themselves that could lead to bullying or unfair treatment from others.

And the way I see it, both sides have their points. I know many people who have dealt with misfortune as a result of social media. Although I have never personally experienced cyberbullying, I have spoken with people who have, and they have told me that it is even worse than face-to-face bullying because there is no escape from it. It haunts you constantly, always there on your phone or your computer screen no matter what actions you take to try and avoid it. I have known young girls who have taken sexualized photos of themselves and sent them out on social media, only to be humiliated when those images fell into the hands of someone who was not intended to get a hold of them. These are problems that have existed before social media, of course, but social media has made them easier to persist.

But social media is not the problem. Social media is a merely a vehicle, and it can be used for just as good as it is capable of evil.

As much as I have known people who were tormented through their interactions online, I have also known people who have an incredibly difficult time making friends in face-to-face interactions, and social media has made that just a little bit easier. Social media makes it easier to talk about things that we do not tend to talk about in our daily lives, because it’s easier to bare your soul before an empty screen than a human being. You can be honest on social media, exploring issues like mental illness or personal insecurities without fear of judgment. You can reach out to people without ever meeting them face-to-face.

This has happened to me countless times: I discuss depression, or suicidal thoughts, or my struggles with my sexual orientation – the sort of things that I would never explore in vivid detail face-to-face with someone, and the next thing I know, I have people messaging me on Facebook telling me that they have felt the same way as me. Maybe they’ve felt suicidal at some point, but they haven’t had anyone to talk to about it. Maybe they’re closeted bisexual. Maybe they’ve simply shared my thoughts at some point. Either way, social media allows us to be more open, more honest, and because of that, it can make us realize that we aren’t alone. That our fears, insecurities, and struggles are merely human. They are something that many of us share, and the burden becomes a little easier to bear when we realize that we aren’t the only ones carrying it.

Social media allows us to meet and make connections with people who are nothing like us, as well. I’m a young white woman, and maybe the majority of the people who I see day-to-day are young white women, but that doesn’t mean that those are the only people I can ever speak to. Social media opens up my world to so much more than that, to so many different perspectives that I may have never considered before. I can read the private thoughts of someone living halfway across the planet if I want to, and I wouldn’t be able to do that quite so easily if it weren’t for social media.

Social media allows us to learn about people. Sometimes we learn ugly lessons about how much we are able to trust a faceless stranger behind a computer screen, and sometimes we learn to open our mind and consider perspectives that we’ve never encountered in our daily lives. So altogether, what does this mean? Is social media a good tool, or a an evil one?

Well, in my personal opinion, it’s neither good nor evil. Rather, it has the capability to be both. There are many things in this world that are just as beautiful as they are sinister, but that doesn’t mean that we should avoid them completely. Social media is a passive tool that is shaped completely by the person using it – it is up to them to make it what it is. And I can say that we should just be careful about what we post and try to make the internet a positive place for everyone, but at the same time, that’s a difficult thing to maintain completely. Some people are going to use social media for ill. Some people are going to steal images that don’t belong to them, or hack accounts, or simply be generally rude, and sometimes there’s no real way to avoid that. That’s just life. But just because there is negativity out there, that doesn’t take anything away from the wonder that exists as well.

Free Speech Used to Disguise Hate

I believe in free speech. I really do; as a writer, I think that it is one of the most fundamental and important things that our society should uphold.

I believe that any society that stifles and controls speech is limited.

I believe that the only way for new and better ways of thinking to be formed is if they have the chance to be talked about and explored freely.

And considering all of that, I have a very hard time when it comes to people who openly and blatantly make harmful comments and claim that it should be protected under the idea of ‘free speech’.

“I’m just saying,” one person recently said on my Facebook feed, “I don’t think transgender people actually exist. I think they’re all just extremely mentally ill and gender confused.” When someone pointed out to them that their opinion was a hateful one, that same person replied with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!”

But what about the transgender teenager on your Facebook feed that saw that comment? And sure, you can say that you don’t have any transgender teenagers on your Facebook feed, but how do you know that? How do you know that your niece, nephew, cousin, child to a long-lost friend, whoever it might be didn’t stumble upon that status and feel a sudden sinking feeling in their gut, paired soon afterward with a sense of self-loathing? How do you know that your status won’t come to mind later on in their life, when they’re thinking about the fact that there are people who don’t believe that they exist? When they start to wonder if they do exist? How do you know that your comment won’t someday contribute to the reason why they never express themselves for who they are, or the reason why they develop a life-altering, perhaps crippling depression? How do you know that your opinion isn’t the reason why someone someday kills themselves?

And I know, this is a difficult field to enter into altogether. On the one hand, people can’t live their lives constantly monitoring everything they say to ensure that it isn’t offensive, and even the best of us slip up now and then. And we do happen to live in a society where people can internalize harmful ideas, so it isn’t unheard of for good people to believe in bad things. But that isn’t the issue that I have here. The issue that I have is the use of free speech as an attempt to excuse hate.

Think about if someone were to make a harmful comment that wasn’t targeting a specific group of people, but rather one person in particular. Imagine someone walked right up to another person and said, “you’re a stupid, worthless waste of human life.” How would you react? Well, hopefully, you’d point out that that’s a cruel thing to say, and if the bully in this scenario responded with, “I’m entitled to my opinions, you can’t shame me for them!” you’d roll your eyes just a little bit, wouldn’t you? Because, yes, people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be harmful and that they do have consequences.

The same thing applies to beliefs that are harmful towards specific groups of people. You can hold onto ideas that are transphobic, racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever, but at the end of the day, you should understand that these are people who deserve rights and respect. They shouldn’t be invalidated, they have just as much of a right to take up space and be themselves as you do, and if you do make an active attempt to undermine their existence, then you should expect a response, just like you should expect a response if you actively walked up to someone and insulted them. In a society where free speech is allowed, you are free to hate as much as you want, but you should also expect to have it pointed out to you that what you are saying is hate, and you should respect their perspective just as much as you want your own to be.