By Lindsay Gross, Opinions Co-Editor

Prior to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, social media was a place for people to flaunt their daily activities, selfies and whereabouts. Now, after months in isolation and limited human interaction, the media has become an outlet for people to maintain sanity and connectivity with the world. Social media has become an escape from boredom and a vital source of information. However, heavy reliance on the media has led to spirals of misinformation and has contributed to mental health issues among its users. The face of the media has changed drastically in the past year, and continues to do so.

Changes in the Media

Social media provides its users with a safe space to interact from the comfort of their household. Apps such as Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook bring children, teenagers and adults together on platforms to entertain and share stories and experiences. “I have used [social media] to communicate with everyone, and have never used FaceTime so much in my life because we are so limited on where we can go and who we can see,” stated Nicholas Picillo, a physical education teacher at Columbia High School (CHS). Not only does social media allow for people to stay in touch with one another, but it also allows people to explore interests that are affected by the pandemic. Gabe Petruziello, ‘21, said social media allows him “to stay in touch with music, style and social issues…it would be hard for me to use [social media] less,” he concluded.

However, facing an increase in self-isolation and a constant search for at-home-entertainment, many have resorted to their phones. The Harris Poll found that between 46% and 51% of US adults were using social media more compared to when COVID-19 originated. Aden Verdun, ‘21, said, “I’m on TikTok for probably six or seven hours a day. I wish we had no phones during the pandemic because looking at my phone for hours on end has started to affect me negatively. It’s fun to watch videos and check social media, but it gets old really fast and gives me a headache.”

Art By M. Shapiro

While being socially connected to others is said to prevent loneliness and provide comfort and joy, with a lack of real-world interactions, humans have resorted to solely digital communication. Multiple studies have shown that excessive media usage is linked to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness and dissatisfaction. Students in the South Orange Maplewood School District (SOMSD) are in online school for up to six hours a day, then complete their homework on a computer, while also resorting to their phones to stay connected to the world around them. Sia Bangia, ‘21, stated, “I think when you’re scrolling through social media you’re bombarded with a lot of things that are not necessarily positive and it’s going to have an effect on your mental health. Today especially, all anyone does is doomscroll, which messes us all up.”

Change in Spread of Information

The media has become a swift way for people to communicate and disseminate information. With a lack of in-person relations, social media provides its users with a platform to reach thousands of other users. “At this point, I feel like it’s the one way to spread information because word of mouth isn’t really a thing anymore,” said Bangia. On social media, you can find direct experiences rather than indirect information through a news source. Public attitudes and perceptions of the disease as well as major world events are published and shared through the vast platforms of the media. Many mainstream narratives lack viewpoints and crucial details. Social media allows everyday people to share their stories and knowledge of events. Many news sources depicted Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests as riots with looters and arsonists, however, on media sources such as Twitter and Instagram, videos of peaceful protests and police incited violence circulated, debunking the mainstream sources.

While the media allows its users to post as they please, it also enables the circulation of misinformation and rumors. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the COVID-19 pandemic has become an infodemic; “an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

Due to former President Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his loss of the 2020 presidential election and his efforts to incite violence, Trump has been banned from major media sources such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and more. Twitter permanently banned Trump’s account “due to the risk of further incitement of violence.” Other media platforms such as Facebook were in alignment. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, stated in a post on Jan. 7 following Trump’s account suspension, “We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”

Short blurbs of information and headlines are used to catch users’ eyes on social media platforms, but information on media platforms may not be fact-checked or cleared of bias. Eileen Conway, ‘24, uses social media to stay in touch with friends; however, she does not rely on the media for her informational intake. “Social media is a very toxic place that is filled with misleading information that is hard to determine what is fake or not,” said Conway. “Sometimes it is really good for spreading a message and bringing awareness to movements, but sometimes it can be counterproductive.”

Social media contains specific algorithms made to cater to their users’ behaviors and interests. Platforms such as TikTok, Instagram and YouTube contain “explore” pages, “for you” pages or recommended content based on the users’ media usage. This manipulation of content can lead to polarization of informational intake and a lack of understanding of different viewpoints on an issue.

The Role of Social Media in Activism

Problems that arose in 2020 served as a wake-up call for many Americans that they needed to expand their education and become well-informed on current events. COVID-19, the many deaths of Black Americans due to police brutality, the circulation of fake news in relation to the 2020 presidential election and many other key matters inspired an uprising of activism on social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement began in 2013 when the co-founder, Alicia Garza, posted the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter” after the death of Trayvon Martin. In May 2020, the video of George Floyd being murdered by the police went viral and attracted attention to the BLM movement. George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and Atatiana Jefferson are only a few of the 226 Black people who were murdered by the police in 2020.

Social media allows minority voices to be directly shared with the world and has raised awareness of the systemic racism prevailing in the US. The media provides an outlet of activism for Black lives, Jewish lives,  Asian-American lives and other minority groups. Many CHS students turn to social media to spread awareness and to call for social justice. Sadie Ordower, ‘22, stated, “On my social media feeds, I mainly see posts I agree with because social activism is very prominent in MAPSO.” Through the utilization of social media, multiple protests for BLM as well as the LGBTQ+ community were organized. Petitions and anti-racism reading lists, as well as lists of organizations to support, are also found on media platforms.

The Maplewood and South Orange (MAPSO) community is known to be proudly progressive. However, there are two types of activism; constructive and performative. In MAPSO, there are Black Lives Matter flags and signs scattered around the neighborhood, as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” painted on Valley Road in South Orange. Despite these visual cues of activism, does it go beyond this? “I think it’s hard to tell [whether the activism seen online is simply performative], especially now because of the nature of social media and the way that people can put something on their story and then call it a day,” stated Bangia. While the “#BlackLivesMatter” hashtag was at its peak in the late months of 2020, the movement is not over, and activism is a continuous action.

The Future of the Media

In such boisterous years as 2020 and the new beginnings of 2021, uncertainty surrounds the face of the media. The media is important for providing its users with outlets to interact with friends, family, peers and strangers in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, however, it is important to step back from the media every so often to check on your mental health and content intake.

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