How to Balance Social Media’s Power, Peril, and Potential

10+ min read • Mar 14, 2021 • Jesse Sumrak

Social media has woven its way into the fabric of our everyday lives. From our habitual feed checks to our “do-it-for-the-‘Gram” lifestyle decisions, these platforms have a real (but subtle) impact on every living being.

You may log into your favorite websites through a social media platform or digest and disseminate news through these platforms. You might only get on for a minute or 2 each day to drop a couple of likes and bounce, or you may spend hours on Twitter and TikTok every week consuming, communicating, and propagating.

On a very real level, having an Instagram or a Facebook account can be dangerous. And not just because of internet trolls, predators, and hackers—though they’re all dangerous enough on their own. Social networking is a pocket-size gateway to psychological warfare, data mishandling, addictive behaviors, social isolation, and exposure to radical ideas.

And the worst part: most of society has no idea these threats plague them every time they unlock their phones. Still, using social media isn’t like smoking or playing Russian Roulette—there’s a lot of real, genuine potential for good, too, especially for small business owners.

Connections, support, conversations, positive reinforcement, and marketingyes, even marketingare all happening on these platforms, and they have the oh-so-real power and potential to make the world a better place.

That’s why social media platforms aren’t going anywhere—they’re here to stay. It’s up to you to choose whether you’re going to seize their power and potential at the risk of your peril or if you’ll avoid the mess altogether.

As a small business owner, you have important decisions to make. Will you stay active and contribute to a better digital experience—at your own risk? Or will you #DeleteFacebook and other platforms and remove yourself from the situation?

There’s no right answer, but you should understand the big-picture goods and evils of social media before making any decisions.

Below, we’ll walk you through social media’s pros and cons first. Then, we’ll cover how you can find balance if you choose to stay on the platforms.

Social Media and the Potential for Good

Let’s start with the good because there is a lot of potential for positivity on social media.

1. Connection

Social media empowers us to connect with family and friends anytime, anywhere. A Pew Research Center survey found that 81% of teens feel more connected to friends because of social media. And 68% feel like they have people on the platforms to support them through tough times.

And that data was collected in 2018—imagine how much more social media kept people connected through 2020. After the physical isolation and mandated quarantines of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not hard to see why connection and support might be more critical now than ever. 

2. Marketing

Marketing gets a bad rap. In reference to social media, it’s often associated with invasion of privacy, data breaches, and other perils. However, marketing has a genuine potential for positive influence and power.

Social media marketing gives businesses, both big and small, a chance to interact with communities, grow awareness for their brands, and sell their goods. And it’s often goods people want.

If you’re into outdoor activities, then you probably see a fair share of ads about hiking, skiing, climbing, and biking following you around across the internet. That might sound like an invasion of privacy (because it is)but contrast that to your experience watching TV. There, your ads might be for finding car insurance or curing your fibromyalgia when you have neither a car nor fibromyalgia.

3. News

Social media has become the most popular news platform for some generations. It’s a quick and easy way for users to access local and worldwide news without even looking for it. If you, like many Americans, don’t receive the newspaper or subscribe to cable television, then the first place you hear about things like the elections or COVID-19 is likely Facebook or Twitter.

The Pew Research Center found that 55% of Americans get their news “sometimes” or “often from social media. These are the people who probably don’t watch television news or read the newspaper. So it’s not that social media is a better source of news for these people—it’s that if they don’t consume it on social media, they’re likely not consuming it all.

4. Exposure to New Ideas

While the social platforms are plagued with self-reinforcement and confirmation biasmore on that soonthey also have the power to expose us to new ideas. Every time you access your feed, there’s the potential to read something that could change your life forever.

Each platform is a place where you can interact with people of all walks of life: poor or rich, local or international, religious or not—it doesn’t matter. And that network is probably very different from your local connections, which might only be your family, the rest of the soccer moms, your church group, or your friends from work.

5. Engagement

When we watch TV, attend an event, or read the news, we’re passive bystanders. We consume, but we don’t interact.

On the other hand, social media gives everyone a platform to join the conversation. It provides each user with a podium and a microphone to stand up and voice their opinions. Their audience can then choose to vote on their ideas with likes, clicks, and comments. 

The Perils of Social Media

As you know, social media isn’t all parfaits and birthday parties—there are scary downsides to these platforms.

1. Data Theft and Abuse

Data privacy is top-of-mind for everyone after the broadly publicized Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Without going too far into a cynical rabbit hole, it’s probably safe to assume everything you do on a social platform can be analyzed, harvested, and sold to third parties to use as they will.

Sites you visit, pages you like, people you follow, your gender, your age group—that data is all easy to access and use. And on a deeper level, your passwords, accounts, medical records, and credit card info—yeah, that’s all across the internet, too. 

2. Fake News

While it’s great that more people have quick access to the news via social media, there’s a concern for the growth of fake news. Unreliable news sites continue to gain traction, and even reliable sources (the president should be considered “reliable,” right?) spread lies and rumors about things like election fraud.

NewsGuard, a browser extension built to identify the reliability of news sources, found that 17% of engagement among the top 100 news sources on social media in 2020 came from sources that were not reliableand that number is up nearly 10% since 2019.

The fake news itself is a concern, but there’s also the issue that this creates skepticism around all news—even the legit, trustworthy pieces.

3. Addiction

Do it for the ‘Gram.

Social media addiction is a real behavioral addiction characterized as “being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas.”

Find it difficult to think about deleting any of the social media apps from your phone? That makes sense. These platforms are an incredible source of dopamine and social rewards that’s hard to replicate anywhere else.

4. Social Isolation

It might be called “social” media, but research shows that those who use it are more likely to experience social isolation. Now, do more socially isolated individuals turn to social media, or does social media turn socially healthy individuals into solitary outsiders? We don’t know.

A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that participants who spent 2 or more hours a day on social media were twice as likely to have perceived social isolation than participants who spent fewer than 30 minutes on the platforms.

Humans are social creatures. We crave interpersonal connection, but social media might be replacing our real-world interactions with inauthentic social experiences that don’t satisfy our social appetite. 

5. Cyberbullying and Trolling

Bullying has always been an issue, but it’s become even more powerful and prevalent with social media’s evolution. Now, you don’t leave the bullies behind at school, work, or the gym—they follow you home on your phone and computer.

Mean comments, photo-sharing without consent, threats, rumor mills, sexual remarks—it’s all happening online, and it’s, unfortunately, easier than ever to do. Cyberbullying doesn’t involve face-to-face interaction, so it’s easier to slam, harass, and threaten someone online than it is to their face—and bad actors don’t often see the immediate or long-term damage their actions cause.

And this isn’t a high school teenager problem, either. 53% of US adults have dealt with cyberbullying, enduring everything from harassment to physical threats to stalking.

6. Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is a natural human tendency to seek new information that’s in accordance with preexisting beliefs. And social media feeds are generated based on confirmation bias.

When people post, their audience votes on their ideas with likes, shares, comments, or ignorance—it’s a form of subconscious proliferation. However, unpopular opinions are usually silenced by the algorithms, while mainstream ideas soar to the top of the feed.

Everything you like on social media influences the future of what you see. It’s beautiful and terrible at the same time.

8 Ways You Can Find Balance Without Disconnecting From Social Media Completely

Your choice to engage with social media doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing—there’s a lot of room in the middle for building the exact experience you need to balance power, peril, and potential. Here are a few ways you can take control of your social media:

1. Be Selective of Who You Follow

Once, you may have been tempted to follow and connect with anyone who sent you a friend request. Well, that’s kind of like opening the door for anyone who knocks or answering your phone for anyone who calls. If you want to control your feed and your social media experience, you need to be more intentional with those you follow and who you let follow you.

And you don’t have to offend anyone by dropping them from your friend’s list or blocking them, either. Just “unfollow” themyou’ll stay friends, but you won’t see their posts or their comments in your feed. If you want a massive social media purge, unfollow everyone and then choose who you want to re-follow very carefully.

2. Update Your Privacy Settings

Check your privacy settings on each platform to tailor the type of information you want to share. Switch your personal profile to a private account so that only those you permit will see your content. Choose who you want to allow likes, comments, and messages from. On most social networks, you can even hide offensive comments and create custom filters to remove inappropriate content.

3. Delete Apps From Your Phone

You can engage with social media without carrying it around with you to your office, bathroom, dinner table, or bed. Try deleting social media apps from your phone and accessing them from a computer insteadyes, there’s still the risk of getting distracted on Facebook during work, but at least you’re not taking it with you wherever you go.

4. Stop Using Certain Platforms

You don’t have to be active on every social network. Pick and choose the communities you want to engage in and stop using the rest. If you’re all about building your professional network and don’t care about all the other hoopla, focus on LinkedIn and don’t bother yourself with Facebook and Instagram. The same goes for your business accounts—you don’t need to be everywhere.

5. Change Your Feed to Sort by Recency

Social network feeds deliver content to you based on your previous interactions across the internet. This is what creates confirmation and unconscious biases. Instead, change your feed to give you content based on the most recent poststhis way, you’re getting an unfiltered look at all the content your community is posting without any fancy algorithms deciding what they want to show you. If you have too many followers, this can get a bit messy, but it’s worth a shot.

6. Stop Lurking and Start Engaging

If you don’t like the conversations going on, you can just #DeleteFacebook—but that’s not going to stop them from happening. Instead of running away, stand up and do something about it. Use your voice and spread your own genuine opinions. Don’t be confrontational, but be engaging. Social media doesn’t just need likes, comments, and shares—it needs considerate people posting original, thoughtful content.

7. Identify Your Intentions

Why are you using social media? Are you just on there to market your business? Is it working? Is it worth it? Do you enjoy it?

Get to the root of how and why you use social media. If you’re just on there to engage with family, could you do that over WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger instead—or maybe even over group SMS or FaceTime?

8. Create Boundaries

Whether it’s Xbox, work, or even exercise, you need to define (and stick to) your boundaries. This will look different for everyoneoutline what’s important to you. Consider not looking at your phone in bed or at the table. Think about turning off your phone when you’re playing with the kids or having a meaningful one-on-one conversation.

Try taking periodic social hiatuses. Delete your social media apps for a week and see how it feels. Like it? Don’t go back. Feel like you’re missing out? Download them again. This is an excellent way to reset and revisit your intentions.

Social Media: Neither Good Nor Evil

Your social media experience is whatever you make of it. These platforms have tremendous promise, but they also carry the grave potential for peril. Breaking up Facebook and disassembling all the platforms won’t fix social media’s problems—we need to find a way to make social media a more positive, safer place for everyone. 

And it starts with you.

Jesse Sumrak

Jesse Sumrak is a Social Media Manager for SendGrid, a leading digital communication platform. He's created and managed content for startups, growth-stage companies, and publicly-traded businesses. Jesse has spent almost a decade writing about small business and entrepreneurship topics, having built and sold his own post-apocalyptic fitness bootstrapped startup. When he's not dabbling in digital marketing, you'll find him ultrarunning in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Jesse studied Public Relations at Brigham Young University.