Just think about it. Prior to 2004, there was no such thing as social media. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat. There was also no YouTube and WhatsApp had not yet been invented. Back then, email accounts were ubiquitous with AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo leading the pack, before Skype was launched in 2003, enabling at first free voice calls and later adding videoconferencing.

The story of Harvard students Mark Zuckerberg, Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz, and Chris Hughes who brainstormed and gave the world Facebook in February 2004 is well known. One year later, YouTube was created, and Twitter was launched in 2006. Everything changed while the world absorbed these technological inventions and got used to the ever-evolving smartphone at the same time. Three years later, in 2009, WhatsApp was founded, followed by Instagram in 2010 and Snapchat the next year. These are not all of the applications that now fall under the umbrella term ‘social media’, but they are the most popular in terms of usage.

Among them, Facebook is probably the most used, possibly because it was the first to appear and also because it is easier to navigate and therefore appealing to a larger demographic. According to the Statistics Online Portal, Statista, Facebook has some 2.2 billion users. Of these, some 0.71 billion are mobile phone users. The highest number of users are persons aged 25 to 34 years old and1.4 billion people log on to Facebook every day. Notwithstanding all that, CNN has reported that there are approximately 83 million fake profiles. According to the report, “There are various reasons for fake profiles, including professionals doing testing and research, and people who want to segment their Facebook use more than is possible with one account.” But it is common knowledge among users that many of these fake profiles are also web robots, automated applications, set up to garner information. Unfortunately, many more are also humans with evil agendas, who delight in sowing discord.

Facebook currently reigns over social media in terms of numbers of users, but the situation is fluid. As at December 2016, Instagram had over 600 million users and counting. Meanwhile, Twitter had over 330 million active monthly users for the last quarter of 2017.

If there is anything that one can take away from the takeover of the media as it was prior to 2004, it is that these situations are fluid, and anything can happen at anytime. Who knows what some college student is dreaming up in his or her room, garage, basement or high-tech laboratory and whether it will become the next big thing? No one. We can all hope, however, that given what has occurred with the prevailing platforms, especially in the recent past—and of course we are referring here to how political research firm Cambridge Analytica smugly dipped into millions of Facebook users’ information—that the world is better prepared for it. All across the internet, apps are reviewing privacy policies and tightening up. Users of various social media platforms have been inundated with messages referring to these new procedures some of which are already in place.

But there is another side to social media that also involves statistics and that the link to health issues, particularly mental health. Excessive use of social media often means staying in one place remaining awake for long periods. This translates to loss of sleep and a lack of exercise, both of which are crucial to overall health in people of all ages. Then there is cyberbullying, which has been documented as contributing to depression and suicide and that is only part of it. There is also that very basic human need to be loved and when in the minds of the young and impressionable this is linked to the numbers of likes and uplifting comments they receive on social media, it is a disaster waiting to happen. 

A documentary done by CNN three years ago had revealed that 13 and 14-year-old children in the US were on social media at least 100 times a day. There is nothing to suggest that this is a statistic that is confined to the US. It is a global issue that exists wherever there is internet access and that is fast becoming everywhere in the world, with very few exceptions.

Young people’s obsession with social media has seen a reduction in the acquisition of social skills. This is unfortunate because as much as persons can use their computers and phones to communicate, nothing beats real human interaction and our bodies, especially our brains are wired for gratification through human contact.

While all of the above might sound negative, that is far from the purpose of this piece. The facts that are stated should be used to inform how we approach and use social media. Evidence abounds—on social media of course—of its usefulness in research and teaching, in highlighting and preventing crimes and in offering empathy and encouragement to those in need. Conversations with our children on how, when and why to use social media are as important as those we will have with them on sex and sexuality. As with everything else, adults need to model their use of social media since children tend to do as we do rather than as we say. Teaching responsibility is the key. Social media is the future. We are better off using it than having it use us.