Attacking social media has become a part of the times we live in. Certainly, social media has plenty of vices, ranging from the mental to the physical. Whereas experts almost every day warn that teenagers and children should be restricted to two hours or less on social media, outside school work few heed them. There have been studies which show the brain changes especially in young children when they are exposed for long periods of time to the internet or in fact any screen.
Even for adults there is growing concern about damage to the discs of the cervical spine as well as growing isolation in an age when face to face interaction is becoming less common. The issue of fake news, and misuse of the internet for purposes of crime or to scam elderly persons in particular has become a real issue. Police and units dedicated to true cyber crime have been tracking down cases where entire savings have been wiped out of bank accounts sometimes by persons operating from far away in other countries.
Art showing people hunched over their phones, oblivious to the world around them, is obviously terrifying. Their zombie-like appearance depicts the future of the world we may all be living in not too far from today. Some would argue they have already reached that point in time already.. Never has information been so widely available and never has it been misused in the manner we see now.
Politicians, scientists, quack doctors and other people with motives of their own have all exploited this. We have seen many examples in our own country and no doubt this will continue to increase as access to the internet grows.
But perhaps it is too easy to forget the benefits. Without the internet it is an inevitable we would know much less about the world we are living in and what is happening around us. This is all the more true in our particular situation when news and details from some areas and some walks of life almost never appears on regular media.
While we are seeing the print and electronic media succumb to restrictions of various kinds, it has proved to be far harder to keep social media under check. This is not to say that attempts have not been made, with some in authority saying quite openly that they are determined to remove posts on social media that they deem as dangerous to them in one way or the other. This is disturbing. It is even more worrying that the majority of social media platforms have decided to support this action and that social media users have reported posts disappearing without any notice or in the worst cases other actions taken.
Essentially speaking, however, despite this social media is not easy to place limits on. There are many ways of getting around the restrictions and finding tools that can allow the original message to go out to the audiences.
Today it is difficult to imagine life without the internet. At times, it becomes particularly useful. In Pakistan at this moment most doctors and dentists are carrying out consultations over the internet to avoid seeing patients and possibly spreading the coronavirus which has changed life for all – possibly for a very long time to come. We should be grateful we have some access to medical aid to obtain advice and seek medical help when it is required. One mother has told the story of how she was able to save her small son from choking on his toys he had swallowed after immediately contacting a doctor over the internet and obtaining the advice she required. In a time when it is difficult or impossible to visit the emergency room of the closest hospital such services can literally ward off tragedy.
The internet has provided us with information literally at our fingertips. This is information that was not available before, or at least not without a visit to a library or a bookshop. Sometimes we forget how much information we have collected off the social media and the internet. Today it is possible to watch a news broadcast from Russia, Iran, Turkey or any other country of the world by simply following a few quick steps. As people, we are probably better informed than ever before.
Of course, there are many downsides. We all know this. But as with any tool a great deal depends on the manner in which it is used rather than the tool itself. A knife after all could potentially be used to stab or even kill someone. On the other hand, it is indispensable in the kitchen or at many other places of work. Most of us would think of it as a useful instrument to possess.
The attempts to control the flow of information over the internet are in some ways disturbing. Yet, hate speech, fake news of some kind and other offensive material does need to be controlled. But attempting to block useful information from people serves very little purpose. There are usually ways on the internet such as using proxy sites, to obtain this information anyway. Perhaps what we need to do is establish, both for children and ourselves, greater discipline over how to use social media. At a time when the Covid-19 problem still stalks the world, interaction with family members and friends over the internet is extremely useful as a means of keeping in touch and avoiding isolation. But at other times we need to encourage a return to a life which revolves to a greater extent around face to face time spent with family, friends and colleagues.
The essential point to be made is that social media itself should not be considered an evil. In many ways it has added colour to our lives and made it possible to enrich them. It has become an important learning tool in the classroom, in the workplace and in other settings. But this does not mean we need to live life locked into our phones or tablets. More and more persons are recognizing this, with restaurants around the world either giving benefits to those who do not bring their phones to the table or putting up notices advising people to talk to each other and not into their phones.
The long lockdown faced by many over the past few months has also encouraged people, including families with young children, to bring out board games and discover the different kinds of enjoyment that many of these bring. For the foreseeable future, social media and its various forums will be a part of our lives. But it is not necessary that it make up our lives entirely and that we turn away from all other pursuits. Its good points should be embraced, and the more ugly ones pushed away.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.
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