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Inane selfies, lame memes, ridiculous games, unverified yet incendiary political as well as religious propaganda, photographs of breakfast, lunch and dinner, it goes on. In times of war and conflict, it is impossible. Social networks today are full of things that arguably add nothing towards any cerebral cause. Data shows that on an average we would end up spending over 6 years on social media in our lifetimes. In contemplative moments, many of us are asking: is social media making us stupid?  Where is it taking us and our the future generations? How do we as parents help ourselves and our kids to regain a sense of normalcy and build empathy?


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Debate: Is social media making us stupid and less empathetic?

Who’s Using Social Media And How?

a. The Teens

A huge chunk of social media users are teenagers who are mostly students. 54% teens say that giving up social media would be impossible. YouTube and TikTok are social media networks teens access regularly. 1 in 5 teens say that they are on YouTube almost constantly (Pew data).

b. The Baby Boomers

These are people who’ve not necessarily grown up on social media or the Internet and are now connecting with kids and friends like never before. The usage has not dropped post pandemic but seen as the new normal.

c. The Millennials And the Adults between 24-40

Most social media usage by adults happens during work hours. Social also provides for a distraction at the moment when the brain cells need sleep.

Is social media making us stupid and less empathetic?

The Social Media Cons 

a. People across age groups are forming a regular habit bordering addiction to social media. This may further lead to: depression, lack of sleep, anxiety, loss in confidence, feelings of loneliness and other such mental health issues.

b. We are seeing a rise in the incidents of bullying and other cyber crimes committed through social media in the younger (teens) and older (new to the Internet) demographics

c. A certain impact on work-productivity. Although, every once in while you get your greatest work inspiration from social media. So this necessarily isn’t as easy as it may sound. More ever, plenty of us use social media for work. That makes it hard to calculate productivity gains & loses.

d. Recent research shows that social media usage is linked to a 40% drop in levels of empathy among college students. The crisis is real. This is further complicated with a proliferation of fake news and narratives in our communities.

How does Social Media Affect Our Cognitive & Intellectual Development?

According to make researchers, social media is affecting our cognitive and intellectual development. Here’s how:

a) Social media is developing addiction and eating up free time. A study by the University of Maryland states  that, students who were asked to go without the Internet for 24 hours faced withdrawal symptoms.

You could have read, painted or played a sport otherwise. But doom scrolling and staring at your Tiktok feed blankly to see what others are posting is not really healthy.

b) Secondly it has affected originality by making duplication easier: A study published by the Journal of the Royal Society Interface scientists have found that mass connectivity through social media and technology might be making us stupider. Basically, a vast amount of information available is letting people get to answers quicker. But they’re not necessarily allowing their brains to go through analytical reasoning or contemplation. This study was conducted before generative AI, which has its own research that probably needs to happen on similar lines.

c) Social media users are constantly multitasking: According to this report, Stanford professor Clifford Nass has argued that higher usage traditional and social media erodes social and emotional development.

“If you observe humans using computer programs that are designated to be “smart,” you will see them make themselves stupid in order to make the programs work”- Jaron Lanier

d) We’re thinking and contemplating less: Dr. Rahwan from the University of Edinburg says, social media platforms and exposure is making us think lesser.

‘We think people are unwilling to reflect more because it takes time and effort’

You can find something interesting or useful posted by someone else and post that yourself to gain appreciation. You do not have to think and come up with anything original and this can potentially make our brains lazy. That is why we see a lot of people who commenting on trending topics, basically sharing posts of other people even if they actually have no clue about the topic, just to come across as intelligent. There are others who are defined as lurkers and constantly just consuming content without creating anything themselves.

In an opinion piece, Liz Swan and Louis Goldberg share the far reaching consequences of instant media and social technologies on our overall communication, saying:

But ironically, our ability to communicate instantaneously with each other via our devices has caused a regression in our language skills. Tech-driven communication has blurred the traditional divide between verbal and written communications so that young people write like they speak, and sometimes, lack the skills to do otherwise. Social media have seduced us into transforming the formal, thought-enhancing written form of communication into an impersonal form of oral communication.

Social media benefits

All is not lost!

a) Those who are industrious are using social media productively and building.

b) We’re making more informed decisions and challenging information asymmetries. Social media has the potential to democratize information to anyone with access.

c) A lot of organizations and professionals are using it to grow their business. Social media is a great channel for someone new like a Startup or a small business to build reach without having to go through expensive channels.

d) We’re in a world of constant inspiration. This can help us find good sources of knowledge and creativity. Of course this depends on following the right people or joining the right groups.

And perhaps to build empathy as a skill again, we need to look beyond social platforms…

Storytelling can help!

Just by telling stories, listening to stories and sharing stories we can become active listeners by offering our attention. When we connect with a story, our brain releases oxytocin. This helps with empathy to connect and deepen our relationships.

In a world full of negative social media commentary and constant always-on FOMO and connections, we strongly recommend getting a social media day off. This is something we strongly encourage kids and adults in our storytelling workshops, offering alternate ways to engage thoughtfully. We need a world that retains its empathy and abilities to tell meaningful stories with kindness.

Let’s not kill each other on social media! Listening to diverse perspectives and getting away from a binary – this or that way of thinking can help us develop cognitive empathy and critical thinking even when stuck in a place of conflict. Let us help ourselves.

This post was originally written for Brandanew by Upasna Kakroo in partnership with Enakshi Sharma in July 2015. It was reproduced for Peerbagh in 2023 .