Is The Golden Age of Social Media Starting To Rust?

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

Gold is revered for its rarity, beauty, and purity. But also, its durability. It doesn't corrode or rust or ever lose its appeal. So why then, as pedantic as this question is, do we use the phrase 'Golden Age' to describe a bygone era of greatness for things that have since waned massively? Surely a metaphor about a wilting flower or ageing Adonis would be more appropriate.

Not that these eras were thought of as ‘Golden’ at the time, they just were. They were popular or powerful, often new and exciting. This is probably why you never hear the present being referred to as the 'Golden Age of Social Media', because we are in it. Social media is just accepted as being immensely popular. But is this starting to change?

More people are addicted to social media than drugs, with the results in many cases being just as harmful. But unlike narcotics, social media has gone largely without regulation. Yet, amidst the endless cascade of vacuous brain-sewage being pumped out by influencers, brands, artists, racist uncles, local businesses, governments, friends, and families, it seems we may eventually be starting to regulate ourselves.



The Social Media Epidemic

The last decade saw an upsurge in social media use, going from 90 minutes per day in 2012 to 147 in 2022. Over half the world indulges in social media with the average internet user having 8.5 accounts. Though many use it to connect with friends and widen their horizons, many more use it to a harmful extent.

In the US, 30% of adults believe they are addicted to social media, and while the results are skewed against young people, older generations are not immune. 40% of those aged 18-22 self-diagnosed as social media addicts compared to 21% for 55-64; just over half, not insignificant for an issue so closely associated with Millennials and Gen Z.

Addiction to social media has dangerous symptoms: depression, loss of sleep, loneliness amongst others. For years, these symptoms flew below the radar, the dazzling lights of instant messaging and selfie hearts distracted from the generational trauma of dwindling self-esteem. Now though, few people can wholly ignore the negative effects. Even if it is just wasting time – on average, children spend 50 minutes a day checking their feeds – most people accept social media as a misery in their lives, with 4 in 10 associating it with negative feelings after use. 

The TikTok Phenomenon

First launched in 2016, TikTok was the revolution of the last decade. The most addictive social media so far. On average, younger users spend over an hour and a half on the app each day, watching the equivalent of a short blockbuster movie in 10 second clips. It was the fastest growing social media, looking to challenge Facebook as King of the Internet, and had an enormous influence on its competitors: Instagram, YouTube and Facebook all copied TikTok with their own imitations of short form videos.

Not only is it drenched with censorship and data controversies, this platform, more than any before it, has raised addiction concerns and attention spans reductions. 50% of users reported finding watching a video over a minute long to be boring, even stressful. This has led to TikTok being the only social media app to implement its own regulations, such as optional maximum screen time.



Turning Tides as NHS voice concern

In the last few years, however, attitudes are beginning to change. People are now fundamentally aware of the effect social media can have. Two-thirds of American adults believe its usage is a cause of loneliness and isolation, 38% think it has a negative impact on mental health, and 39% believe it is bad for society altogether.

Additionally, while 2022 did see the highest recorded time on social media, the increases have been stagnating for years. A rapid snowballing of usage occurred between 2012 and 2019, reaching 145 minutes per day, but there was no increase whatsoever on that figure for the following two years. This is significant as these years were marred by the pandemic and lockdowns; the fact there was no increase in social media usage even with little else to do possibly suggests a diminishing interest in the platforms.

The NHS has taken action too after concerns were raised over social media causing eating disorders. Subsequently, a Parliamentary group has made numerous policy recommendations, funding research into its “addictive” nature and assigning duty of care for users under 24 to the parent companies of each platform.



Zuckerberg’s Own Goal

But perhaps the biggest indicator that humanity’s love affair with social media was only a temporary fling is the monumental flop of Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. Keen to keep his image as a pioneering innovator, a cyborg God amongst mortals, Zuckerberg released his Metaverse: Facebook brought into a wholly virtual world, a “Social Universe”.

The result was a tragedy.

Despite insurmountable investment, the Metaverse failed to gather a usership anywhere near its comparatively primitive older brother, Facebook. The majority of its 400 million users use it primarily as a vessel to play the game Roblox and 77% of its actual users believe it can cause harm to reality.

The all-consuming effect social media has on people’s lives has become unavoidable. Those addicted to it, even if unable to wean themselves off, fervently resist any additional chains dragging them away from reality, including this virtual purgatory Zuckerberg is trying to force on us.

Attitudes towards social media are changing. We loved it. Now we’re scared of it. But we can’t escape it. It is real life now. It is how friends are made, art is shared, and business is done. But could our obsession with it, especially its non-essential facets, becoming to an end?

Perhaps its ‘Golden Age’ is not real gold, just an imitation. An imitation starting to rust.