By: Keegan Wagner
Whenever the topic of social media, and the problems associated with it, is discussed, many may recall how much emphasis was put on “Stranger Danger” when they were first introduced to the internet. People originally thought that the biggest threats were predatory accounts, computer viruses, and scams, and this was drilled into the minds of Millennial and Gen Z kids that grew up with new technologies.
While these concerns are still real and very dangerous, many safety features have been implemented to limit them to a minimum. It is also worth mentioning that most internet users are much more knowledgeable about avoiding scams and viruses than they were in the past.
These days, people on social media face dangers that they may not even be aware of, mainly because new threats mostly operate on a psychological level. They are not directly created by a single source; rather, they are unintended side effects of the online environment.
The first and most well known of these new dangers is the concept of internet trends. Trends exist in every aspect of life, whether it be in the fashion industry or the type of music people listen to. But on the internet, things are different because information is sent between users instantaneously and can be spread to hundreds of thousands of people within a few hours.
Because of the fast paced communication, it means that trends, often referred to as “challenges,” take on an almost malignant form, especially on sites like Tik Tok that reward short, repetitive videos and reinforce the need for instant gratification.
Often these trends can be harmless as learning an easy dance, but they can also encourage people to do dangerous things and reveal sensitive information about themselves. Arguably the worst type of trends are the ones that incite fear and spread questionable information disguised as genuine displays of concern and news-reporting.
An example of this is the recent rise of Preformative Activism, also known as “Slacktivism,” where people on the internet regurgitate fabricated content in order to make themselves look better, under the guise of spreading awareness, regardless of whether or not the information is accurate.
Misinformation is also closely related to another danger, the phenomenon of echo chambers. Defined by Oxford Languages as “an environment in which a person encounters only beliefs or opinions that coincide with their own, so that their existing views are reinforced and alternative ideas are not considered,” echo chambers are by far the most prevalent and the most dangerous side effect of social media, creating situations in which impressionable audiences can be easily manipulated, and potentially radicalized, simply due to the algorithms implemented by social media sites. These algorithms are the system in which “liking” a certain piece of content will show a user more of that type of content and will show less content that users ignore or dislike.
A less extreme, but equally dangerous version of these echo chambers comes in the form of mental health. It happens entirely by accident, because it is very normal to talk with friends about problems or challenges a person may face. However, the issue lies in the fact that many people actually substitute talking to online friends for real therapy. It creates a situation where people feel victimized and receive affirmation for feeling victimized, instead of getting real advice that could help actually deal with their troubles.
The issue goes a step further when the mental health echo chambers amplify certain issues to the point where it becomes impossible to see the bigger picture. For example, someone who is upset about a relatively minor family dispute might end up believing that they suffer from self-diagnosed mental illnesses and trauma after exaggerating the situation online.
Finally, the phenomenon of parasocial relationships is another problem that has arisen from the internet unintentionally. While it is likely the least threatening one so far, it is definitely the most concerning when it comes to how young internet users develop. Parasocial relationships refer to the twisted dynamic between an internet influencer or content creator, and their fanbase. Usually, the fans will feel a strong sense of friendship or closeness with an influencer, despite the influencer being completely unaware of that audience member’s existence most of the time.
Naturally, people seek friendships and bonds with others. However, when young internet users feel as if they have “bonded” with someone that doesn’t even know they exist, it can be incredibly harmful for developing social skills and views on relationships in the future.
Discovering, classifying, and finding the roots of these side effects is probably a minor advancement when considering the possible laundry list of unknown problems with the internet. Similar to how no one knew the long term effects of smoking cigarettes in the 1910’s, it can be hard to predict what kind of unintended consequences the internet will produce. It is especially difficult considering that a lot of these newly discovered issues revolve around child psychology.
A new wave of internet safety education is long overdue, and in the meantime, it is up to the more experienced and knowledgeable internet users to encourage younger generations to prevent the spread of misinformation and dangerous trends.