Nothing is good or bad, usage makes it so…. is an apt way to begin a write up on social media and its many contradictory indications. What are its effects on our lives?
When one assesses the pros and cons of social media dispassionately, the scales definitely tilt to the positive side. But let us begin with some of the less savoury aspects of this amazing communication tool which exerts such an overwhelming dominance over modern mindscapes.
Recently, when I visited a young colleague of mine, an all too familiar scene was enacted before me. Her teenage daughter came back from school, gulped down a few mouthfuls of food and sat down beside us with her iPad. She was soon immersed in her own cyber world. The embarrassed mother desperately tried to draw her into a conversation she was scant interested in. When I got up to leave, she waved a perfunctory goodbye, without taking her eyes off the gadget that had her full attention!
On the way home, I recalled reading somewhere about Hollywood film director Steven Spielberg saying that he was an avid people watcher and drew inspiration for his characters from studying faces and observing people in airports and community gatherings. He admitted that, unfortunately, none of his six children inherited this trait. In airports, where a motley crowd assembled, they remained glued to their cell phones, oblivious of the flow of life around them.
I was also reminded of an interesting snapshot sent by my cousin taken on her daughter’s eighteenth birthday. It showed seventeen of her friends engrossed in their smart phones, in the midst of all the festivities.
Such instances when gadgets and virtual reality triumph over actual human contact, made me wonder once again at the huge gulf between the then and the now.
Our generation grew up spending our leisure time with books, group activities, sports, passionately pursuing the limited hobbies that were at our disposal. The telephone was the only medium for communication besides letter writing as we blithely sailed along from childhood via adolescence to adulthood. In fact, many of my peers shunned the new tools of social media till recently, succumbing to the seduction only when the pressures to join the popular bandwagon became too strong. And, perhaps, because we got the time and the space to develop other interests during our formative years, most of us can now use social media selectively, without being completely enslaved by it!
Today, social media and its compulsive hold on youngsters have become a point of despair with many parents. However, there are few sub texts to this problem. Often the predilection to keep in constant touch with friends on Instagram or Facebook springs from some kind of lacuna at home. With so many distracting tools easily available, responsible parenting has become doubly essential. In a world where every 8 seconds of a school day, a child drops out, every 26 seconds a child runs away from home, every 47 seconds a child is abused and every 67 seconds a teenager has a baby, the pressures on parents are mounting. In many homes across the globe, television, i-Pads, computers and play stations have become substitutes for absentee parents. It is obvious that merely being a good provider does not absolve one from the onus of being a hands-on parent. A happy, fulfilled family life definitely lessens the dependence on social media.
Of all the demerits of social media, cyber crimes and cyber bullying are the most damaging ones. Though only a very small percentage indulge in them, the ramifications can often be dangerous. Many horror stories have surfaced about the misuse of these tools by irresponsible and vindictive persons. I was told about how a teacher’s honest assessment of a wayward student in a PTM of an elitist school led to her being ostracised in Instagram. And her daughter was even threatened with rape! The school authorities did not extend any support to the employee because the father of the offender was a major contributor of funds. The petrified teacher had to leave her job and relocate out of sheer fear for the safety of her children.
Innumerable instances of cyber bullying can be cited. Enmities and rivalries take on an ominous slant these days. Reputations can be demolished with a single vicious post. A careful screening of the friends one makes on social media is a must. And, for the young, some amount of parental control needs to be exercised.
Then again, when one looks at the other side of the coin, the perks provided by social media are undeniably huge. It facilitates social growth and interaction with a wider world effortlessly. Today, life without internet or Google is unthinkable for us. Accessing information with the click of a button is a convenience we can’t have enough of, even though it has ended the reign of dictionaries and encyclopaedias in our everyday life. Emails have put an end to the arduous task of writing letters and the interminable wait for an answer. Our social networking has spread worldwide through Facebook, MySpace, Quora and Twitter. Reconnecting with long lost friends and family and making virtual friends with strangers has become a favourite pastime. These sites erase geographical boundaries and help in fostering a profound sense of community.
Social media has also become an effective platform for espousing meaningful social causes and issues and creating awareness about them. There are many campaigns like #MeToo where people have rallied together to become a formidable force voicing protest against social ills.
Professional sites like LinkedIn help job aspirants by featuring their profiles and providing them with training and placement opportunities. Most businesses now have a Facebook page in order to reach out to millions of users.
The advantages of social media are enough to fill up good many pages. No one can discredit its contributions in the field of communication, making it efficient and expeditious. Social networking has given us all a new sense of proximity, renewing old ties, and creating new ones.
As a teacher, I feel more fulfilled now as I can be in touch with many of my students and can follow the trajectory of their progress in life. It is deeply gratifying to connect with friends and well wishers all over the world, to be appreciated for my work, to be wished by so many people on my birthday. It is only at a very personal level that I miss the good old days when birthdays meant telephone calls which sounded like sweet music and greetings cards arrived with mushy messages. For all the superlative benefits of social media, I miss the magic and warmth of direct human voices. Maybe, for a person with my kind of a temperament, verbal attestations still mean a lot more than a prompt and precise post!
Aditi Chowdhury retired as Associate Professor, Department of English, Handique Girl’s College, Guwahati.