Chances are, if any kind of social change is reported in the world today, it will be blamed on social media the next. From the decline in teenage sex to a corresponding yet paradoxical growth in teenage sexualization, almost every perceived development and modification in human behavior over the last decade has been connected at one point or another with the infiltration of social networking sites (SNS) into our lives. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have apparently made us more narcissistic, have saved us from committing more crimes, have depressed us, have expanded our waistlines, have tempted us towards an increasing number of divorces, and have helped us erect filter bubbles around ourselves and our world-views.
However, besides providing Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey with some excellent free publicity, this tendency to equate nearly all societal change with social media is a tad dangerous. Yes, it might be reassuring and even fun to pin responsibility for all of society’s ills on SNS, yet doing so threatens to obscure complex economic, political and social processes behind a simplistic, one-size-fits-all explanation. Ultimately, it risks perpetuating the very issues it claims to address, since it often blinds us to their underlying conditions and causes.
One particularly notable offender in this vein was a recent article on how teenage pregnancy in the UK has almost halved since the dawn of the social-media era. According to The Daily Telegraph, the number of pregnancies among under-18s has plunged by 45% since 2007, a year that loosely coincides with the launches of Facebook (2004) and Twitter (2006). Besides this less-than precise coincidence, there’s no other indication of a causal relationship between the two phenomena, suggesting that the link was somewhat hastily drawn, perhaps to attract the millions of people who use social media daily and therefore have an understandable interest in clicking headlines about it.
What’s more, there’s plenty of evidence to implicate other factors in the decrease in teenage pregnancies. For one, the very same newspaper declared in 2014 that “the generation of young people who came of age in the era of austerity and higher level university tuition fees are increasingly more sober, hard-working than their predecessors.” They are 9% more likely to attend arts and cultural events than the generation that came five years before them, and more of them are enrolling in higher education than ever before, with “rising numbers of women and students from deprived areas” entering universities. What this means is that, quite apart from logging onto Facebook more, teenagers were also becoming more responsible, industrious and educated, and thereby less likely to fall pregnant.
Their being pushed in this direction by the financial crisis was echoed by a Cambridge researcher writing in The Guardian, who affirmed in 2013 that “Austere times have made our young prematurely middle aged.” More than anything, it’s this element in declining pregnancy rates that’s key, because it underlines how an exaggerated focus on the role of social media in emergent social trends diverts us away from some of the more significant constraints that teenagers and other people face on their behavior. In criticizing them for spending too much time on Facebook and Twitter, we may therefore be forgetting that they’re being subjected to considerable economic pressures that are more in need of attention than our apparent fixation on selfies.
And what holds for the commentary surrounding teenage pregnancy also holds for most other changing facets of society for which social media receives the blame or plaudits.
Whether it’s our intelligence or our sociability itself, social media is flagged again and again as the chief agent of change, without these flaggings hardly ever being accompanied by accounts of the wider context in which Facebook and Twitter have insinuated themselves. We approach social media as if they operate within a vacuum, altering us entirely according to their own logic, and not in conjunction or harmony with the logics that preexisted it (e.g. narcissism was already on the rise with Thatcherism and Reaganism in the ’80s). Not only does such an oversimplified view of the situation deny individuals a certain measure of agency, choice and freedom, but it also forgets that social media — like all technologies — are only ever an expression, extension and amplification of the societies that preceded them. On a fundamental level, they introduce nothing new.
Yet still, we continue to march out the social-media explanation whenever some novel social pattern emerges, be it a drop in drinking or a spike in bullying. This isn’t to say that social media doesn’t play a role in such patterns, but that an all-but exclusive focus on its role distracts us from some of the more important and influential reasons as to why people are already inclined to use Facebook to bully others online, or why they aren’t partying so much anymore.
In fact, because of our willingness to latch onto Instagram et al. as the main driver of social change, we’ve reached the stage where the narrative regarding social media functions at the societal level in much the same way as this media itself often functions on the individual level: as a reassuring filter and curation of our collectivized selves, as a narrative that removes all of the ambiguous complexity of modern existence and leaves only the most comfortingly simplistic profile in its stead. And just as one person’s immersion in the world of social media won’t necessarily improve his or her social life, neither will our concentration upon social media as the source of today’s problems make these problems disappear.