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Why Aristotle was right about social media

social media
social media

Once upon a time, social media was praised for its ability to build communities and form connections. These days, we are more circumspect: social media is powerful, but it can also be harmful.

Increasingly, we talk about social media as a bad habit, something to be given up, so that we might reclaim the hours spent ‘doomscrolling’.

But bad habits are hard to shift. Data from the Pew Research Centre found that, while 64% of US adults believe that social media has a mostly negative impact on life in the country, 72% maintain at least one social media account.

The problem is, giving up social media is simply not practical for many of us. And beyond that, the evidence that all social media is bad for you is patchy (although most of us know someone who has “quit” social media and claims to be the better for it).

Do we have to take an all-or-nothing approach to social media? Perhaps it is about finding the Golden Middle Way – learning how to be balanced in our approach to social media, rather than removing it from our lives altogether.

(And just to be clear: this article is about the social media usage of adults, rather than that of children.)

Is quitting social media the right move?

Worries about privacy and time-wasting, or a dislike of invasive ads, drive some of us to think about deleting our social apps.

Many of us also worry about the negative impacts on our mental and physical health. For example, the filters and manipulated selfies used on Instagram are known to trigger negative feelings about body image, particularly amongst teenage girls. Moreover, a 2021 meta-analysis of 55 studies, with a combined sample size of 80,533 people, found a positive (albeit small) association between depressive symptoms and social media use.

However, studies have yet to assess the long-term impact of quitting social media. This is partly because, of those of us that do take the plunge and delete the apps, a percentage will eventually return to social media.

Finding balance with mindful social media use

Quitting social media is absolutely the right decision for some; any potential benefits will depend on the person doing the quitting, and why they’re doing it.

For others, it may be preferable to change how social media is used, rather than cutting it out completely. A recent article in The Conversation suggested that the way we use social media can play a pivotal role in shaping how positive or negative our experience is: “By using social media mindfully, users can minimise potential harms while retaining the benefits.”

And there are benefits: for instance, during the pandemic, the ability to stay connected to people we couldn’t see in person was incredibly valuable.

For some, it may only be one platform that is problematic: if you dislike Instagram’s tendency to focus on people’s private lives, you could simply stop using Instagram.

Another approach is to curate your social media feeds and engage only with content that serves you. For instance, you might choose to engage with body-positive content and avoid accounts that trigger negative body-image emotions; or combat concerns around fake news by editing the accounts you follow, so that you only see posts from trustworthy news outlets.

The power of taking a break

Taking temporary breaks from social media might also be more practical than calling it quits, long term.

Researchers from the University of Bath studied the mental health effects of a week-long social media break. For some participants in the study, this meant freeing-up around nine hours of their week which would otherwise have been spent scrolling Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok.

Their results suggest that just one week off social media improved participants’ overall level of wellbeing, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety.

The Golden Middle Way

Aristotle wrote about the Golden Middle Way - the mean between two extremes of excess and deficiency. This might be a useful way to reframe our attitudes to social media, which – in true social media style - tend towards polarity.

Rather than feeling guilty about social media usage, we might adapt our approach so that it serves us in a positive way, whilst understanding its potential for both good and bad, and learning to handle with care.