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Social Media has been blamed for teen depression, poor grades, crime, identity theft, data mining, censorshipdivorce, envy, bullying, defamation, anti-semitism, and pretty much everything else.

In fact, if Facebook hadn’t been launched three years too late, I’m sure someone would have linked it to September 11th by now. 

But the fact remains that in a few short years, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have become so popular that they even get their own verbs.

Facebook, being the most popular social media company out there, tends to be the social media scapegoat, much the way that McDonald’s is the scapegoat for the fast food industry. They get blamed for everything the most.

Maybe it’s because nearly a billion people use Facebook to some extent and it bothers us that one company owns information on that many human beings.

Maybe it’s because breastfeeding photos are taken down, but holocaust denial groups and pro-anorexia boards thrive.

Maybe it’s because no one is entirely sure they understand their own privacy settings.

Maybe it’s because we want this excellent method of sharing our information with others to be (paradoxically) completely private.

Maybe it’s just that there’s something creepy and Big-Brotherish about Facebook and its ilk.

We are sure that all of this online sharing of information must be bad. Anything this addictive can’t be good.

Social Media is frequently labelled as the the downfall of true human interaction.

Studies have found that teens who use Facebook a lot are much more likely to be depressed, have lower grades, and all sorts of other problems in their lives. We talk a lot about how much social media is changing our world, and we’re pretty sure it’s for the worse.

We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.” – Stephen Marche, The Atlantic

But I disagree.

I think it could save the world.

Connection Is Good

Opinion articles complain that people don’t talk, now; they text. Families are accused of no longer interacting with each other, instead choosing to sit in silence around the dinner table, while using their personal mobile devices.

But is this really true?

Just a few years ago, when I was at work I was essentially cut off from my friends and family all day long. Now, Perfect Husband and I can text each other throughout the day.

A friend of mine passes Facebook statuses back and forth from her teenage children when they are at school or camp, and both sides of the exchange are full of “I love you’s”.

Fifteen years ago, if I lived across the country from my friends and family the way I do now, my mother would have to be satisfied with the occasional email with a photo attachment of her grandson. Now she can watch him grow day by day as I post photos to Facebook, and talk to him on Skype.

Once upon a time, immigrants came to Canada and America leaving behind family, sometimes their spouses and children, in order to make more money to send home. All that would connect them with their loved ones was the occasional letter.

Well, they are still coming West and leaving family behind, but now they can see and talk to each other daily.

Remember the days when your father would be late coming home from work, and your mother would wonder and worry about where he was? Remember losing track of your friends in the mall and wandering around hoping to bump into them? No more.

Nowadays it’s so easy to get in touch with someone that we do it by accident all the time, from our pants. 

If a family doesn’t talk to each other, there are bigger issues at work than the mere existence of Facebook. Otherwise, a simple “no phones at the table” rule would fix that problem up instantly.

Not only can we interact with each other more easily these days, but those interactions on Facebook and Twitter have more quality to them than we may have previously suspected.

Researcher Paul Zak claims that people experience oxytocin surges when interacting with loved ones through social media.

Oxytocin is an interesting little hormone. Mothers out there probably recognize it as the thing they use to kick start your labour, and the thing that is released when you nurse your baby. Men may not know it, but they release it after sex.

Even looking at a photo of a loved one, or just at something cute, can set you off.

I just made you release oxytocin.

It’s the thing that makes you bond to others, the thing that helps you feel attachment to those around you. Spraying oxytocin up people’s noses has improved social awareness in autistic children, improved moral behavior in test subjects, and resulted in greater demonstrations of empathy.

We get oxytocin surges when someone hugs us, when someone does something kind for us, and when we do something kind for others. When we are trusted, we get an oxytocin boost, and that makes us more likely to trust others, in kind.

In other words, oxytocin is probably one of the best things our bodies make. It is the thing that makes us feel good about other people, and makes us be kind to other people, and we get it by interacting with… other people.

Even if those interactions are online.

If this is true, then that puts social media in a whole new light.

Social media is not the aspartame of human interaction. It isn’t providing us with a  false feeling of connectedness, while actually driving us apart.

Instead, it is a genuine, valid interaction that provides us with some of the social effects of true interactions, including empathy, connectedness, and social support.

When researchers actually ask people how they feel about Facebook, the responses back this up.

(Source Common Sense Media)

According to Forbes, teens report that social networking helps them stay connected to their families and friends.

Staying connected is important.

Nor does Facebook reduce our urge to see our friends in person. According to that same Forbes article, only 7% of teens actually prefer to interact with their friends through social networking.

In fact, surveys have found that internet users are more likely to belong to a real life group, be it a book club, church, weight loss club, or whatever.

Social networking is credited with helping people find people with similar interests… whom we then want to meet off-line.

You know, like in The Guild.

because you know you want to be like these guys

Social media doesn’t make us less motivated to see other human beings in person. It’s just a sort of nicotine patch (or, maybe, an oxytocin patch) to help us get through our day.

In which case, we should all use a lot more of it.

If interacting with our friends and loved ones on social media gives us harmless oxytocin boosts throughout the day, then that’s like having hugs in our pocket.

how social networking makes us feel

It’s no wonder that depressed people use Facebook more. The depression isn’t caused by Facebook  – people are just self-medicating with oxytocin, which is known to help alleviate depression. 

Facebook is not a cure for depression by any means, but if it helps keep people from going off the deep end and makes them more likely to interact with friends in real life, then we should keep it around.

Furthermore, that oxytocin also promotes niceness.

Research has found that students connected to each other via online networking showed higher amounts of empathy. And it is out of empathy that pretty much all niceness and morality stems. The key trait of psychopathy is lacking empathy. Empathy is what makes us not evil.

So let’s have some more of that, please.

Connection is REALLY Good

A  2011 survey revealed some interesting statistics about social networking sites:

  • People who use social networking are more trusting of other human beings.

That makes sense, since oxytocin boosts trust, and since you have to trust the social networking site in the first place to be a user. 

Those who shy away from Facebook will say that Facebook users are just more gullible. And maybe that’s partially true. But people who feel that they can trust others are happier than people who feel they can’t. If you wish you could trust others, but have trouble, maybe you should spend more time on Facebook.

  • Facebook users have more close friends whom they communicate with on a daily basis.

It’s only slightly over the national average, but it’s still a higher average.

  • Facebook users get more social support from others.

Any mom-blogger can tell you that this is the truth – the internet is a wonderful place to find emotional support. And, of course, if you have Facebook and Twitter to help you maintain and build relationships with people, when you need your friends they are more likely to come to your aid.

  • Facebook users are more politically active.

You are more likely to vote, to attend a rally, and just to generally care. If we had some more of that, maybe our election results would have been different.

  • MySpace users are more open to other points of view

Those who worry that social networking might result in people cocooning themselves away from dissenters can relax. Social networking doesn’t impede and may even improve our ability to understand other people’s points of view. This may be the oxytocin at work, again.

If social networking helps people feel more connected, more empathetic, more trusting, and less depressed, well, then it can help cure an awful lot of our ills.

With the onset of social networking, our generation has the potential to be the most connected, the most in-touch, the most in-tune and the most oxytocin-alicious generation the world has ever seen.

If human beings are made to connect and bond with each other through interaction, then the internet may truly make us into a global village – and less of a global all-out brawl.

Forget peace signs and protest rallies, maybe all we need is more Twitter.

Connection Promotes Social Good

What about accusations that social networking allows our government to probe too deeply into our personal lives?

Yes, it’s creepy that the government could, at any moment, try and get Facebook to release my personal info. I mean, Stephen Harper looking at my baby photos? Shudder!

But counterbalance that with the fact that a lot of criminals have been caught by posting the wrong information on Facebook.

When Vancouver had that embarrassing riot last year, a lot of people got caught on video, and that video ended up on the internet. Then people watched the videos, and identified perpetrators.

Big Brother may be watching, but in this case, Big Brother includes our peers cooperating with law enforcement agents. I think that a world in which our wrongdoings are more easily caught might be a better place.

I’m willing to risk the police peeking at my “likes” if it means that more pedophiles might get caught.

wrongdoings like this, for example.

And it works the other way around, too – we’re watching Big Brother.

Thanks to social media, a single consumer has much more of a potential impact these days. Think of the times when I have criticised a company on this blog- and been contacted by one of their social media representatives shortly afterwards to right the wrong. 

People are taking companies to task publicly on their web pages, and when the companies handle it well, we applaud them.

Connection Is The New Normal

If you need more reasons than love, happiness, understanding, companionship, crime-fighting, and saving lives, there is another reason why even the most suspicious and misanthropic may want to get a Facebook account:

If you don’t have a Facebook account, people think you’re weird.

Social media is here and it is here to stay. More and more employers are looking up potential employees online, and if you don’t have a profile, they might find it suspicious.

Clearly you are socially atypical. Does it mean that you’re less connected to others? Making a political statement? Or does it mean that you’re so offensive and unruly that even Zuckerberg doesn’t want you on his site any more?

Some of the more ridiculous new articles out there even accuse non-Facebook users as being “psychopaths”, pointing to the evidence that mass murderers like that Batman movie shooter aren’t Facebook users.

Society’s image of a non-Facebook user

Obviously that’s crazy.

But it tells you how much our concept of “normal” has changed from just a few years ago, when people were like “what’s Facebook?”.

Connecting The Dots

There are lots of reasons to not be a Facebook user, like everything I listed in the first sentence of this post.

But ultimately, I think the potential benefits outweigh the risk, and I think most Facebook users know that.

The fact is that Facebook users may be more trusting of other people, but they still don’t blindly trust Facebook. Nor do they submit to the creepy data mining marketing tactics by clicking on ads.

Personally, I don’t even see Facebook ads. Or any ads. I have adblock installed on my browser and don’t know why everyone else doesn’t do the same thing.

But what about crime, social ills, and bad teen grades?

Isn’t Facebook responsible for all of this?

I’m not so sure. I haven’t really noticed a change in internet crime, viruses, or social isolation since the onset of social networking. That all existed long before Twitter, you know?

You could have your identity stolen without ever touching a computer. You could get bullied, or harassed, or stalked anywhere. You could hear hateful speech on the street corner, or even in your corner office. You could find censorship in your workplace or even at your in-law’s house (some would argue especially at your in-law’s house).

Nor is there anything new about teen depression or poor grades. When I was a kid, it was hampsterdance and Hotel Chat – now it’s Facebook, Pinterest and Tumblr. Teens always find ways to waste their time.

Really, most of our problems with social networking sites pivot upon the point that social networking is, basically, public.

Even with privacy setting in place (and if you haven’t fine tuned yours, you should) it is still and always will be public. People can see what you put there and if you put the wrong thing in the wrong place, it can be stolen.

The same rule applies to every area of our lives, though. Why should social media be any different?

Connection Is Better Than Disconnection

When I weigh the balance of risk and potential benefits from sites like Facebook, it looks like this:

Cons:

  • Chance someone might steal a photo of my baby for illicit sharing of cuteness.
  • Chance someone might aim marketing at me based on my lifestyle and preferences.
  • Chance that if I am stupid on the internet, I could get caught or ripped off.
  • Chance that someone may flag a photo of Owl breastfeeding as “inappropriate”.

Pros:

  • More connectedness to the people I love.
  • More bonding with the people I interact with.
  • More empathy for the people I interact with.
  • More social support.
  • More political awareness.
  • More ways to catch criminals.
  • More ways to hold big business accountable.
  • More ways to find lost children.
  • More ways to reach out to suicidal teens.
  • More ways to deliver medicine to the third world.
  • More opportunities to correct people’s grammar.
  • More hilarious memes shared by George Takei.

It’s a difficult decision, but the choice to me seems clear.

So the next time someone beefs about people Tweeting on the bus or complains about Timeline finally hitting their Facebook profile, think of all the ways that social media can make our world a better place.

We could use it to stop wars, save children, fight prejudice, and make more people laugh their asses off… and we can do all of that without giving away our home addresses or credit card information.

We have the power. Let’s use it for all it’s worth.

So please share this post…

… and then for the love of all things holy, go double-check your privacy settings.

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(and no, no one has paid me or made any kind of offer to provoke me into writing this post. A TEDtalk inspired it.)

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