Highly commended

The World Today Updated 23 July 2020 Published 15 July 2020 4 minute READ

Alexander McGovern, The King’s School, Canterbury,‘Time to look up from our phones’

Social media has provided me with a voice that I otherwise could not have had. With the voting age at eighteen, politicians have historically ignored the views of young people. This has severely damaged our future as a result of politicians championing unsustainable, short-term policies to gain re-election, shown by our current climate crisis. Through social media, however, the exchange of viewpoints between people from different cultures has resulted in the growth of civic engagement, holding governments to account in a far more consistent manner than singular elections every five years can sustain. Therefore, social media has led to the promotion of plurality and democracy, bringing politics away from the far-flung halls of Westminster and into our own homes, all at the click of a button. As Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’, because ‘whatever affects one… affects all’. Therefore, social media improves representation, acts as a check on governmental behaviour and allows all of us to lead our lives as we wish.

However, social media has made me question who controls my beliefs: myself, or the malign botnets and troll farms spreading misinformation and hatred. Twitter has transformed into a lawless Wild West, with hate speech and Machiavellian animosity permeating the platform. The widespread fearmongering and misinformation, using emotionally charged content to whip up populist anger and polarization, has turned our democracy into what Wael Ghonim describes as a ‘mobocracy’. This proliferation of deceitful half-truths and disinformation has blurred the lines between fact and fiction and is fundamentally damaging to our democracy.

Moreover, as the Financial Times reports, the ‘filter bubble’ produced by algorithms causes individuals to consistently be shown content that they agree with. This ‘echo chamber’ has led to beliefs going unchallenged and thus the willing acceptance of extreme, polarizing views. Therefore, social media has made me question whether my views are truly personal, rational beliefs, or whether I too have been indoctrinated to become a mere repository of paranoia and fear.

Whilst social media currently makes my life worse overall as a result of the global hate I see around me, it does not have to be this way. A clear regulatory framework, enforced with punitive measures such as fines, would clamp down on the malevolence infecting the internet. However, the complexity of social media’s loopholes and algorithms means that regulation may merely scratch the surface of the wider societal problem, expressed online, of anger. To combat this issue, we must stop being sucked into the maelstroms of ‘fake news’ and fear, but instead simply look up from our phones and connect with each other. This would tear down the barriers of identity politics dividing our society and allow us to truly interrogate the world, understanding different viewpoints and determining how politics can best work for us. In so doing, we would reclaim the reins of our future from those whipping up hostility online. We would forge a better society that works for us all.

Sophia van Zyl, The Judd School, Tonbridge, ‘Using social media is a skill to be learned’

Social Media has undoubtedly shaped the life of the modern individual and is arguably one of the most influential innovations of recent times. But the full extent of its impact is something more difficult to measure, and what is even harder is understanding if the changes created are for the better.

There seems to be an overwhelming consensus that social media is responsible for the diminishing self-esteem of vulnerable adolescents. If you type ‘social media’ and ‘mental health’ into your search engine, you will be bombarded by a plethora of articles going into great depth on the toxicity of apps like Instagram and Snapchat, which provide snapshots into the so-called ‘perfect lives’ led by influencers and models.

There is no denying that social media is not without its faults; from cyberbullying to the unrealistic portrayals of ‘perfect lives’ mentioned above. But many of the problems are not new, and have simply evolved with the times. Bullying is a problem as old as humanity itself, and as for the unrealistic lives thrown in our faces, well I would argue that they are no more harmful than the magazines and billboards showing airbrushed models that we have been bombarded with since long before social media existed.

What no one is talking about are the communities and safe spaces social media has created for those who may have struggled to find people who can relate to their problems in the real world; there are endless forums on Reddit for support with coming out as gay and suicide prevention pages on Instagram that can be accessed anonymously; this is something that is virtually impossible to replicate without the use of social media and that should not be underestimated. Many minority groups that in the past may have felt alienated from society, such as those with disabilities, or who identify as part of the LGBTQ community, can easily find others in similar positions, eliminating the loneliness and isolation they would historically have been plagued with. And that’s not even considering the more extreme cases where people are unable to even leave the house but can still interact with others online.

So sure, social media is undoubtedly a dangerous weapon, one that’s virtually impossible to regulate, but what’s dangerous is not the software itself, but rather our lack of knowledge on how to use it. Having an Instagram account doesn’t mean that you have to follow an endless stream of influencers who seem to have the sole intention of showing a perfect life. And on virtually every social media platform, there is very strong cyberbullying support. So instead of writing endless articles trying to deter others from social media and encouraging ’30 day detoxes’ with little to no success, I believe it’s essential that emphasis is placed on using social media responsibly and to its full potential. After all, it seems foolish to let children as young as five use something that could potentially be so dangerous with no instruction.

Anupam Bandi, Saint Olaves Grammar School, Orpington, ‘A small world is good, but we all need some space’

I have grown up in a small world. My grandfather was born in a world where his home in India was weeks of travel away from where I live now in London. My father was born in a world where London and India were separated by a day’s journey. I was born into a world where I could be in London and talk to friends in California, Japan and India all at the same time. Without delay, without any idea of the vast lands and seas that separated us, I could telecast my presence almost anywhere on Earth. That is the small world I was born into, shrunk by the power of social media.

So to answer the question of whether it has my made my life better or worse is a paradoxical one, as I have never known a life without it. I am truly a child of the Digital Age. It would be like asking a Victorian if their life was better with or without the British Empire. But I can imagine, and a life without social media would be a life with less social interaction.

Now, the way I have phrased that makes it sound horrible. Less social interaction? We would all be recluse loners. Social media was intended to join people together, allowing an effortless way to find like-minded people in a free forum to share ideas, a Speaker’s Corner for everyone, every minute of every day. I can watch a livestream of a game alongside hundreds of thousands of like-minded fans, I can tweet about a topical debate that is then liked, favourited and shared by millions globally. Is that healthy?

I think the problem with social media is not the types of interactions occurring on their platforms, but the interactions in the first place. As much as humans are social animals, being in contact with other people constantly has definitely pushed people to an edge of sociability. I have grown up in a world where I am never more than a few clicks away from a friend, and they are never more than a few clicks away from me. In this new small world, I have traded privacy and space for constant global connection.

But it would be an injustice not to mention the remarkable things that have come from this connection – friends in the most unlikely places and movements to give the marginalized a voice through unity. People have chosen to use the power offered to them by social media for good, and this vastly outweighs the negatives that are widely reported as the only symptom of social media.

When it comes to social media, I often wonder at whether it is good to be living in a small world. It definitely made people’s lives better at first, putting people on one side of the planet in contact with people they may never have met otherwise. But in a fast-growing world, maybe what we all need now is a little space.