Imagine you’re at an auto show, and the car experts tell you to start riding your bike more. Or listening to a newspaper executive speak and hear them say, “You should only subscribe on Sundays.”
That’s exactly the kind of curious talk I heard last month at Social Media Week in Chicago, where more than one panelist stressed the need to disconnect from social media.
The conference occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, so this struck me as especially surprising. And as a young PR professional, my job would be quite different – and probably more difficult – without social media. But speakers on the panel “How to be Mindful When Everything is (on) Social” said social media can make us more reactive and less likely to make thoughtful decisions. Taking a break from social media, the panelists said, helps us be more mindful – and mindfulness helps us act more confidently and make better use of the information available.
I’m not sure I agree. Sure, the constant conversation can be overwhelming, but if used properly, I believe social media can make us more mindful. The diversity of viewpoints and information made available by social media can broaden our outlook. It helps us form and evolve our individual ideas and views, which in turn makes us more self-aware.
The panel included four individuals who said they start each day without engaging on social media, allowing them to focus on their intentions rather than their reactions. They argued that this, in turn, allows them to be more content and live happier lives.
It’s not a bad idea, and I can understand why they’d want to take a break from the news cycle. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that individuals experience higher levels of stress when they’re more aware of stressful events in the lives of others. This is especially worrisome (it’s happening right now!) with kids, who use social media at a high rate, according to another Pew study that found 92% of teens go online daily and 24% who say they’re online “constantly.”
With so much access, it’s inevitable that children and teenagers will be exposed to news about tragic world events, like the terrorist attacks in Paris last month. As someone whose knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks came solely from my parents, which allowed them to carefully choose when and how I came to know about that horrific event, I do wonder if kids will be traumatized, or desensitized, by the constant barrage of news, especially those who are too young to truly grasp what’s going on.
But while I understand the need to take a break and shelter our youngest citizens, I still believe that balanced use of social media does more good than harm. Mainly, I see its power in spreading greater awareness of what’s going on in the world, which could lead to more widespread empathy. The Paris attacks caused a wave of sadness throughout the world; through social media that sadness became visual and, in a sense, more real. Trending hashtags such as #prayforparis were everywhere, and a symbol that featured a combination of the Eiffel Tower and a peace sign went viral after a single tweet.
At times of widespread horror, social media creates a common place for us to mourn together. At its most powerful, social media becomes a global cyber-community where we can all gather to consume, digest and discuss news from around the globe. This is particularly valuable at a time when many news organizations have scaled back on their international coverage.
So while social media can cause added stress, there is no denying it can also increase awareness and even togetherness. The communities that are created on social media allow us to share our ideas, heightening our perceptions of the world, and making us more mindful – not less.