Recently I watched a movie that I chose, paid for, and sent from my phone to my television screen all without getting up from my sofa. The ease of that transaction wasn’t particularly new. What surprised me this time was that, while I was watching the film, whichever actor happened to be on the screen – in any scene – their name and photo popped up on my phone. If I’d wanted, one extra sweep of my finger would have given me access to read their life history.
How drastically things have changed in what feels a relatively short time since my childhood. Television became available in South Africa (where I grew up) in 1976; initially broadcasting for just two and a half hours each evening. Uptake was enthusiastic in homes that could afford to buy one, and families that couldn’t would congregate to watch in the homes of neighbours. Adults occupied the comfortable seating, and we children sat on the floor. The technology didn’t initially include remote controls – if the volume needed adjusting, one of us kids had to get up and turn a dial until an adult told us that was enough. (I like to think my generation were the living inspiration for voice-activated volume control).
If we wanted to know more about our favourite actor, we had to walk to the public library after school. Telephones were used for talking out loud to people, one was generally shared by a whole family, and was located in a communal area that didn’t provide much privacy. There’s no doubt the unprecedented pace of technology has allowed us all to function fundamentally differently in just a few decades. It’s tempting to make this blog all about the good old days but, the truth is, I love how easy these things are now – not just the way I can watch any movie any time, but so much more. I do my banking on my phone instead of driving into town and standing in a long queue. The recipe for any dish in the world I might want to cook is only a search phrase away. I regularly video-chat with my young niece while she eats her dinner in Australia. Who would not want all of this convenience?
But as with every major technological advance available to society, we’d be unwise to drift into the change it heralds without some contemplation of its deeper impact. People and relationships are what ignite my interest the most, and the rise of interacting with each other via social media has transformed the process of maintaining relationships. We never need to miss milestones or news from people we know and love, and we have the potential to enjoy conversations and benefit from ideas and views from anyone anywhere across the world. But there are some reasons to be cautious too, and thoughtful in how we use this brave new technology. So here are three questions to ask yourself while staring at your screen:
1) Should I be on here right now? The major social media platforms are designed to keep us engaged. The complex programmes and algorithms that run behind what we see analyse what we are interested in, and then show us more so we’ll stick around. One day I spent 15 minutes looking at a stranger’s wedding photos because they appeared on my Facebook newsfeed after a friend commented on them. I looked up from the beautiful but none-the-less irrelevant images to notice my kids were sitting quietly in the same room as me. I was simply wasting an opportunity with real people I loved.
2) Should this influence me? We each have an idea of how much time we spend on social media but, generally speaking, statistics show that our daily usage is high. For many of us, social media is the dominant source of our ideas, news, humour and community. So it’s worth regularly asking objective questions about the information we’re absorbing. The occurrence of “fake news” is the downside of the freedom that social media has given us to all have an unregulated voice. Whether it’s a home remedy for instant weight-loss, or an allegation against a high profile politician, it’s always worth cross-checking facts against reputable news sites before sharing them – or believing them.
Yours may be different, but my newsfeed is typified by memes carrying profound sayings and nuggets of apparent wisdom. These are easy to engage with and assimilate as truth. But just because it sounds good and looks enticing doesn’t mean it is true. We need to keep checking what it is we’re accepting. A popular Facebook page (with 12 million followers) recently shared a meme claiming “Life is so much simpler when you stop explaining yourself to people and just do what works for you”. It had been shared by over 2,300 people when I saw it. It certainly sounds good. But if you really think about it, you’ll identify the flaws in adopting this premise without reserve. Another example has appeared on my newsfeed a few times: “How you treat dogs tells me everything I need to know about you”. Adolf Hitler famously adored his German Shepherds. Need I say more?
3) Just because I can do something, does it mean I should? There is no doubt social media opens up all
sorts of access to each other that we didn’t used to have. For example, we are now privy to conversations taking place between others, photos of parties we weren’t at, the politics, beliefs or passing thoughts of a wide range of people we know through various contexts. Our lives have become more visible to each other than ever before. All we need to keep asking is whether or not using that access in each instance is a good idea. Should we be looking at whoever’s profile we’re browsing? Why are we posting a particular photo, or sharing an article? Should we allow ourselves to get offended or feel critical when we’re still waiting for a reply to a message we sent earlier and we see that friend is online?
This only scratches the surface of some of the questions we need to keep asking as we get to grips with how to use the remarkable benefits of social media healthily. You may have your own questions you like to ask yourself. As always, we’d love to hear them – do share with us in the comments below.
Emma Howden is a mum, sister, daughter and friend. She is a communicator at heart, believing understanding gained through clear communicating and listening can usually go a long way to help most relationships stay healthy. In a previous century she started her work life as a mainframe computer programmer, but now is loving a second career in communications, which has taken her to roles at a number of great charities. She has a strong-willed cat who regularly challenges her authority at home, and two teenage sons who make her laugh often and help keep her ideas and outlooks fresh.