Having appeared at the end of the twentieth century, social media developed into an important and influential phenomenon that became an integral part of people’s daily life. The concept of social media includes any website that gives its users the opportunity to socialize. Thus, such sites range from social networking platforms like Facebook and Twitter to blogs and virtual worlds, as well as gaming and video-sharing sites (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011, p. 800). Little by little social media reshaped the way people communicate, the amount of information they share, the way they spend their time and even the way they think. The new concept has also made a major impact on business. The question of how to use social media to the advantage of their company is on the agenda of any serious player on the market of consumer products. People of all ages have found some sort of social media that suits their likes and needs. However, teenagers and young people tend to spend more time online than other age groups. Despite the advantages that social media offer, both police reports, and research data show a massive negative impact that the sites have on the crime rate, human physical and psychological health, as well as on people’s personal and professional life that is affected by their digital footprint and the information they disclose.
The damage that excessive use of social media inflicts on human health has been worrying medical professionals for several years now. Researchers conducted studies as early as in 2010 to see how hypertexting and hypernetworking affect teenagers. The results were shocking: spending over three hours a day on social networking sites was associated with leading to addictions. Thus, teenagers who rely excessively on electronic communication, run a higher risk of starting smoking, drinking and having unsafe sex practices (Payne, 2010). Furthermore, the social media themselves can turn into an addiction. Both children and young adults are most susceptible to the phenomenon, but it is not limited to them. The problem is so well known and accepted in the society, that a new term of “Facebook addict” has been invented and added to the Urban Dictionary (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010). The term does not only reflect the existence of a ‘nasty habit.’ Several independent studies have revealed changes in the prefrontal cortexes of people who spend online more than 38 hours weekly. The discovered changes are similar to those that occur in the brains of drug and alcohol addicts (Dokoupil, 2012). Another health problem that has found its reflection in dictionaries is the “Facebook depression.” People who spend too much time on social media sites often exhibit symptoms of clinical depression (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011, p. 802). Despite the fact that researchers do not have a full explanation for the development of the symptoms, the most likely cause is the intensity of the online world in comparison with the daily life. Scientists warn, that living an imaginary life through social media has a damaging psychological impact, and may go as far as cause “hallucinations, delusions, and genuine psychosis” (Dokoupil, 2012).
Besides serious physical and mental health issues, another area that suffers greatly from social media invasion is the social sphere in general and privacy in particular. People’s both present and future reputations may be ruined because of the social media. What blogs and networking sites are best known for is the speed with which information is spread. Posting and sharing are tools for announcing any fact or opinion. Neither checked or censored the information reaches thousands and even millions of users in mere hours. Thus, social media became an ideal platform for spreading false information with the purpose of tarnishing someone’s reputation. By the time the truth comes out, the damage has already been inflicted. However, even people’s own Internet activities may be harmful to their social image. The digital footprint that users leave whenever they go online can be tracked and made public. The modern proverb warns that “what goes online stays online” and even deleted content does not disappear completely, which means that one’s future reputation may be ruined by the ‘dirty laundry’ of their online past (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011, p. 802). The same digital footprint is also used by companies who are actively exploiting social media to boost their sales. On the basis of their personal information, people are bombarded with advertisements that are best suited to influence their buying tendencies (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010, p. 65). Finally, people’s privacy is further compromised by themselves. People whose real life is not fulfilling enough tend to turn to social media to attract attention. By posting multiple pictures, sharing personal comments, and checking in cafes and restaurants, users reveal to anyone interested details of their personal life. Such attempts to have more attention result in excessive exposure and a sort of “online nakedness.”
Crime problems are another set of urgent issues that social media users need to consider. The variety of the possible crimes is vast and ranges from the above-discussed defamation to theft. According to police reports in the UK alone, users of social media sites reported as many as 16,000 criminal incidents last year (Evans, 2015). The most common complaints are abuse and harassment. They occur so often partially due to the fact that social media provide a certain feeling of anonymity. Sitting in a comfortable chair in front of their laptop plunges people into the online world where few if any limits are imposed. Thus, the abuser gets the satisfaction of the act without seeing the damage that is inflicted. However, the damage is real and may be severe and result in profound psychosocial traumas “including depression, anxiety, severe isolation, and, tragically, suicide” (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011, p. 801). Unrestricted access to social media sites creates room for various types of fraud. By gaining access to people’s personal information, criminals may steal their identity (Evans, 2015). Last but not least, the information that users post may serve as a pointer for burglars. In an attempt to show off and attract attention, some people announce their upcoming holidays, upload pictures of their tickets or check in at the airports. Sharing such data gives the green light to anyone who is looking for an ‘easy target.’ The problem is so serious that bank and insurance companies dismiss claims of fraud or burglary victims who disclosed a lot of personal information online. Companies state that such negligent individuals invite “fraudsters to scam them” (Bentley, 2012).
Nonetheless, there are undeniable advantages that social media sites offer to their users. They allow people to complete numerous tasks that are important for their real life. Thus, social media help people to stay in contact despite living far or having schedules that make it hard to meet in person. It may prove easier to find online new friends who share one’s interests or hobbies. Social media sites are also excellent platforms for exchanging ideas and brainstorming. Teenagers may find online communication an especially important means of gaining acceptance and forming their self-image (O'Keeffe, Clarke-Pearson, & Council on Communications and Media, 2011, p. 802). However, like with any substance abuse, it is extremely hard to see the line that separates healthy communication from addiction. Little by little the time that a person spends online starts exceeding any acceptable limits, but it seems to the person that they are still in control. Furthermore, research shows that although social networkers spend some of the time maintaining their business or personal contacts, they waste a lot of their time on unproductive activities (Clark, 2011). The distractive power of social media is not restricted to free time. On the contrary, it often diverts people’s attention during their working hours, decreasing their performance. The second considerable advantage that social media provide is the possibility of staying well-informed. Scrolling down the news feed on Facebook surely allows users to find out the latest news almost as soon as they happen. On the other hand, what one reads on social networking sites may be deliberate or unintentional misinformation, baseless rumors or just a joke.
All in all, despite their advantages, social media remain a largely negative phenomenon that affects many aspects of people’s lives. Overuse of social media sites is associated with serious psychological problems like depression and psychosis, as well as with users’ addiction to the online world. Having plunged too deep into the virtual world, people lose the understanding of reality and start sharing too much. In their attempt to get the attention they need, people post personal details that the criminals use more and more often for fraud and burglaries. Users also risk being harassed and abused because of the feeling of anonymity that online communication offers to their attacker. Finally, through ignorance or negligence, people overlook their digital footprint that allows anyone competent to extract the information about the sites they visited, comments they made, and even recover deleted data. Thus, in the world of social media where no limitations are imposed, the risks that users run are too serious and significant to be ignored.