When it comes to acknowledging birthdays, sharing family photos and swapping jokes with friends, social media has been a godsend.
It's also become fertile ground for a temper tantrum.
Erupting over a college buddy's insipid post or falling for a conspiracy that has you fuming at authority figures can become a daily occurrence.
Think about how peaceful life would be if you abandoned Facebook or Twitter. Now admit how unlikely it is that you'll follow through.
According to Statista, more than 3.6 billion people use social media; that number is expected to climb to 4.4 billion by 2025, well over half the world's population.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center discovered that 18% of American adults relied on social media as the primary way they learned about politics and elections.
There are no reliable numbers on how many people have torn their hair out in the process. But is it just a coincidence that millennials are reporting baldness in increasing numbers?
If you insist on staying on Instagram — how else will you find out what Cousin Jessica had for dinner last night? — consider the following tips while moving forward.
Every picture tells a story
When University of Pennsylvania Prof. Damon Centola began examining how Democrats and Republicans communicated on social media, he discovered a significant surprise: It was much more difficult for political opposites to find common ground when posts were accompanied by certain images. An online conversation about climate change went nowhere when pictures of an elephant and donkey were in the mix.
"When we removed the party logos, meaningful conversation skyrocketed," said Centola, author of a new book, "Change: How to Make Big Things Happen."
Pictures pack a punch; use them wisely.
Include the wallflowers
Alpha types tend to dominate group discussions. They're so busy ranting that they often fail to acknowledge other ideas. "Their opinions are likely to amplify bias," Centola said. "Thoughts that differ or challenge can be silenced by a strong person."
He suggests paying attention to those who are tuned in but not saying much. Take a moment to ask them what they think.
"That act alone increases the quality of the conversation," Centola said. "There's a lot of intelligence in that community."
Do your research
How many times has someone told you they read something startling on Twitter but can't cite the original source of the tidbit? That happens often, according to Michelle Ferrier, founder of TrollBusters.com, a service that goes after those who abuse journalists online. Before you repost an item, do a little digging. Where is the information coming from? How long has it been in operation? Are the sources diverse?
"Know the outlet and whether it has a history of producing unbiased information," said Ferrier, a professor at Florida A&M University.
Always be aware of the source's motivation. Is its main goal to share facts or to reiterate your own views of the world?
"If something seems too bizarre to be true, do a search," said Joy Mayer, founder of TrustingNews.org, which helps journalists establish trust and credibility. "Is this coming from only a fringe website or is it a rather standard interpretation of things?"
Expand your horizons
It's far too easy to get comfortable in your bubble. "When you just follow friends and celebrities who see the world the way you do, you can feel like you're really being informed, but you're really just getting a slice of what's happening," Mayer said. "You're just getting an unchallenged narrative."
Ferrier suggests you take a hard look at what outlets pop up in your social feeds. Just as some cable TV viewers monitor both CNN and Fox News, think about following online groups and people who have differing viewpoints. Don't forget to check out what foreign journalists have to say about America.
"Make sure you're not just relying on a single source for information," she said. That same strategy also works for learning what's happening in your community. In addition to subscribing to your local paper, Ferrier recommends signing up for Nextdoor.com, a hyperlocal social networking service for neighborhoods.
When someone posts something ridiculous, your first instinct may be to show off how many swear words you know. Take a breath. Acknowledge that the information is interesting and tell the writer you're eager to learn more. Ask for a link to the original source.
"Asking people to pause for a moment and back up what they're saying with facts can be effective," said Mayer, a former professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "When we confront people with accusations or fiery language, it's usually not going to lead to changing minds or finding mutual understanding."
If someone is way off course, Mayer suggests sending them a private message rather than calling them out for all to see.
"Sometimes you don't want to embarrass somebody," she said. "Maybe someone had the intention to share responsibly and just didn't check it out enough. They may want to know it's wrong. Let them go back and delete and edit themselves."
Know when to give up
Sometimes, it's just not worth it. Often we engage with agitators online that we would just roll our eyes at in person.
"If some hothead in front of you in line at the grocery store is spouting nonsense, you're not going to chime in and say, 'Oh, that's not how I see it,' " Mayer said. "You're going to wait until he gets out of your space. You should take the same approach online, as well."
It's also wise to know when to take a break from social media altogether. Mayer acknowledges that may be difficult, especially during a pandemic when human contact is limited. But timeouts might just save your sanity.
"Volume isn't always better," Mayer said. "That's especially true if your feed is always filled with people being outraged or talking about things that you're mad about. Limiting your consumption of information can be a problem. I get it. But it can be good for your mental health."
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