This article was updated on: 11/19/2021
Social media is an undeniable force in modern society. With over half the global population using social platforms, and the average person spending at least two hours scrolling through them every day, it can’t be overstated that our digital spaces have altered our lives as we knew them. From giving us new ways to come together and stay connected with the world around us, to providing outlets for self-expression, social media has fundamentally changed the way we initiate, build and maintain our relationships.
But while these digital communities have become commonplace in our daily lives, researchers are only beginning to understand the consequences of social media use on future generations. Social media models are changing every day, with major platforms like Meta and Instagram evolving into primary digital advertising spaces as much as social ones. A critical responsibility falls on marketers to spread messages that inform, rather than contribute to the sea of misinformation that thrives on social media.
Read on to see what’s on marketers’ minds when it comes to the impact of social media on society:
You’ve likely heard about the negative impacts that social media can have on mental health. Experts are weighing in on the role that the algorithms and design of social platforms play in exasperating these concerns.
At SXSW 2019, Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Human Technology, talked about the “digital loneliness epidemic,” which focused on the rise of depression and loneliness as it relates to social media use. During the panel, Raskin spoke about the “infinite scroll,” the design principle that enables users to continuously scroll through their feeds, without ever having to decide whether to keep going—it’s hard to imagine what the bottom of a TikTok feed would look like, and that’s intentional. But with the knowledge that mental health concerns are undeniably linked to social media use, the dilemma we’re now facing is when does good design become inhumane design?
Arguably, Rankin’s term for social media use could now be renamed the “digital loneliness pandemic” as the world faces unprecedented isolation during the COVID-19 outbreak. In 2020 the Ad Council released a study exploring factors that cause loneliness, and what can be done to alleviate it. Interestingly, our research found that while social isolation is one factor that can cause loneliness, 73% of respondents typically maintain interpersonal relationships via technology, including engaging with others on social media. Simply put, social media use can both contribute to and help mitigate feelings of isolation. So how do we address this Catch-22? We should ask ourselves how we can use social media as a platform to foster positive digital communities as young adults rely on it more and more to cope with isolation.
Findings like these have been useful as we reexamine the focuses of Ad Council campaigns. In May 2020, our iconic Seize the Awkward campaign launched new creative highlighting ways young people could use digital communications tools to stay connected and check in on one another’s mental health while practicing physical distancing. A year later, we launched another mental health initiative, Sound It Out, which harnesses the power of music to speak to 10-14-year-olds’ emotional wellbeing. Ad Council has seen the importance of spreading awareness around mental health concerns as they relate to social media consumption in young adults—who will become the next generation of marketers.
EXTREMISM & HATE
Another trend on experts’ minds is how the algorithms behind these massively influential social media platforms may contribute to the rise of extremism and online radicalization.
Major social networking sites have faced criticism over how their advanced algorithms can lead users to increasingly fringe content. These platforms are central to discussions around online extremism, as social forums have become spaces for extreme communities to form and build influence digitally. However, these platforms are responding to concerns and troubleshooting functionalities that have the potential to result in dangerous outcomes. Meta, for example, announced test prompts to provide anti-extremism resources and support for users it believes have been exposed to extremist content on their feeds.
But as extremist groups continue to turn to fringe chatrooms and the “dark web” that begin on social media, combing through the underbelly of the internet and stopping the spread of hateful narratives is a daunting task. Promoting public service messages around Racial Justice and Diversity & Inclusion are just some of the ways that Ad Council and other marketers are using these platforms to move the needle away from hateful messaging and use these platforms to change mindsets in a positive way.
PUBLIC HEALTH CRISES
Social media can be both a space to enlighten and spread messages of doubt. The information age we’re all living in has enabled marketers to intervene as educators and providers of informative messaging to all facets of the American public. And no time has this been more urgent than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public health efforts around mask mandates and vaccine rollouts have now become increasingly polarized issues. Social media platforms have turned into breeding grounds for spreading disinformation around vaccinations, and as a result, has contributed to vaccine hesitancy among the American public. Meta, Instagram, and other platforms have begun to flag certain messages as false, but the work of regulating misinformation, especially during a pandemic, will be an enduring problem. To combat this, Ad Council and the COVID Collaborative have put a particular emphasis on our historic COVID-19 Vaccine Education initiative, which has connected trusted messengers with the “uncommitted” American public who feel the most uncertainty around getting the vaccine.
Living during a global pandemic has only solidified a societal need for social media as a way to stay connected to the world at large. During the pandemic, these platforms have been used to promote hopeful and educational messages, like #AloneTogether, and ensures that social media marketing can act as a public service.
Beyond serving as an educational resource, social media has been the space for digital activism across a myriad of social justice issues. Movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have gone viral thanks to the power of social media. What starts as a simple hashtag has resulted in real change, from passing sexual harassment legislation in response to #MeToo, to pushing for criminal justice reform because of BLM activists. In these cases, social media empowered likeminded people to organize around a specific cause in a way not possible before.
It’s impossible to separate the role of social media from the scalable impact that these movements have had on society. #MeToo and BLM are just two examples of movements that have sparked national attention due in large part to conversations that began on social media.
SO, WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MARKETERS?
Social media is a great equalizer that allows for large-scale discourse and an endless, unfiltered stream of content. Looking beyond the repercussions for a generation born on social media, these platforms remain an essential way for marketers to reach their audiences.
Whether you argue there are more benefits or disadvantages to a world run on social media, we can all agree that social media has fundamentally shifted how society communicates. With every scroll, view, like, comment and share, we’re taught something new about the impact of social media on the way we think and see the world.
But until we find a way to hold platforms more accountable for the global consequences of social media use, it’s up to marketers to use these digital resources as engines of progressive messaging. We can’t control the adverse effects of the Internet, but as marketers, we can do our part in ensuring that the right messages are being spread and that social media remains a force for social good.