By Linda C. Ashar, J.D.  |  05/02/2024

social media impact


Once upon a time, social exchanges involved conversation around the kitchen table, on the front porch, over the back fence, and on the telephone’s party line. Western Union was the original Twitter. Mail was sent by letter that went through the postal system, and news was published in print media.

The advent of radio and television sped things up. Later, the internet came, connecting people on the World Wide Web, and everything changed again.


What Is Social Media?

Social media now refers to web-based applications that promote the creation and exchange of user-generated content. Social media’s range is global, with its scope of topic and type of user virtually unlimited. Social media includes internet sites such as Meta’s Facebook® and Instagram®, X® (formerly Twitter), YouTube®, Yelp®, and countless blogs.

Social media has become a vast, informal network of online venues – public and private, paid subscription and free, large and small. It can be used for a variety of purposes, such as:

  • Family celebrations
  • Political campaigns
  • Charitable promotions
  • Health support groups
  • Sports clubs
  • Prayer circles
  • Hobbies and occupations
  • Fundraisers
  • Information sources

Social media wields cultural influence on fashion and food trends, family and adolescent health issues, world news and local events, political and community action events. Social media has spawned a new type of marketing through the use of a unique, virtual public personality: the social influencer.

Social media has become a complex phenomenon because it is much more than individuals exchanging words. Social media sites – the venues where communications happen – are controlled by their platform owners.

Conglomerates like Meta have come under fire with allegations of exerting censorship on the one hand and insufficient control of content on the other. In the U.S., these problems are considered under the First Amendment. Other countries’ laws might differ.

According to a 2023 Surfshark article, people in China, Iran, and Turkmenistan have been denied access to Facebook, YouTube, and X for 14 years. YouTube has been blocked in Eritrea for almost 14 years, and most major social media sites have been barred in North Korea for up to 8 years.

As Surfshark notes, that means multiple generations of 1.6 billion people are cut off from social media. Those people are confined to a cloistered, narrow world, where they have limited access to each other, as well as to other nations’ people and events. These nations’ blocking of social media access to their populations is tacit testimony to the power of social media at the grassroots level of society.

Social media has clarified one aspect of human behavior that is above dispute. People enjoy:

  • Talking with like-minded people
  • Railing at each other
  • Sharing life’s joys, interests, and grief
  • Spending time with each other
  • Watching each other

Technology has enabled the social media revolution. But from the beginning, its success has been driven by this human need this human need to communicate.


The History of Social Media

Humanity is a social species by nature. When the internet entered daily life around 1983, worldwide connections became an instant possibility.

Talking to the next-door neighbor became anyone on the planet, and the backyard fence was traded for a computer monitor. Whether for private purposes or business, communication is what humans do – not always gracefully or truthfully, but certainly continuously.

Social media had its first seeds in email. The pleasure of receiving a letter from a friend in a physical mailbox expanded to the computer.

“You’ve Got Mail!” became a daily electronic notice in business and personal correspondence. Then, technology proliferated from clunky desktop computers to sleek compact laptops and mobile phones.   

With email came email groups organized on internet sites – electronic discussion groups for people with similar interests. A leading example was YahooGroups (which closed in 2020).

The internet enabled online bulletin boards and chat room forums for information exchange and group talk. In the 1990s, AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ allowed real-time text messages.

In 1994, the wiki was born. A wiki is a user-collaborative information site that can be edited by any user through a browser. According to Katie Terrell Hanna of TechTarget,  “wiki wiki” means "fast" in Hawaiian, which is how the name originated.

According to Wikipedia, computer programmer Ward Cunningham created WikiWikiWeb in 1994. Today, there are reportedly hundreds of thousands of wiki sites.

The inherent catch of wiki sites is the ability of nameless users to post and edit information that is not vetted for accuracy, so other users must evaluate and correct it. This accuracy problem gives rise to a concern about “fake news.” However, academic and evidence sources can also post data in wikis.

The worldwide collaborative, interactive, free access to information on virtually any topic makes wiki social media sites an important component of the social media revolution. At the very least, they are information gateways to other research sources.

In 1999, Pyra Labs launched Blogger®, a publishing platform acquired by Google in 2003. Mat Honan of Wired explains that Blogger “was a revolutionary web product” that “gave push-button publishing to the people.”

Today, information is available digitally to anyone with access to a computer or mobile phone. As a result, this widespread change in communication has enabled a dramatic shift in information sharing and acquisition of knowledge that, in turn, affected lifestyles and social mores.


The ‘Invention’ of Social Media

The recognition of social media as a distinct entity was in 1997 with Andrew Weinreich's launch of SixDegrees. Called the “father of social networking,” Weinreich forecast the social media phenomenon seven years ahead of Facebook.

SixDegrees’ base was a site for email connection links. In simple terms, Weinreich's vision was networking.

Social media’s networking capacity is exponential for connecting social media users' who share interests, have questions, and want to connect with others. But in 1997, the technology to facilitate such capacity had not yet caught up with Weinreich's full vision.

Weinreich sold SixDegrees for $125 million in 1999 and moved on in the industry. Social media technology, however, took off in the new millennium.


Social Media’s Explosion in the 21st Century

The timeline of social media innovations in the 2000s highlights just how quickly the social media revolution advanced in that era. While wikis and other online sites were focused on general information, easier personal connections for social media use came into their own in slick online sites.

The launch of Friendster® in 2002 expanded the concept of networking occupied by email groups and virtual bulletin boards. Also in 2002, LinkedIn® established a social media site for professional and business networking.

MySpace® launched in 2003, followed quickly by Facebook in 2004. Originally created for college students, Facebook grew into the global colossus that is Meta today, eclipsing Friendster and MySpace.

In 2005, YouTube appeared. YouTube has since expanded from a collection of user-uploaded videos to include live streaming, music, advertisements, and marketing channels.

The year 2006 introduced Twitter – a real-time dialogue, news, and opinion posting system called “micro-blogging,” that limits messages to short posts. Twitter quickly wielded a powerful influence, connecting social media users in real time worldwide, a popularity somewhat narrowing since Elon Musk changed the site to X in 2023. 

Digital image sites like Pinterest® added a visual dimension to social exchanges in 2010. By 2016, amateur entertainment and personal influencer reels became a hit on TikTok, rivaled by Snapchat®, ,  Facebook’s Reels, and Instagram. That same year, live-streaming took off on Facebook and Periscope (with the latter ending its activities in 2021).

According to Pew Research Center, Facebook and YouTube are the most widely-used platforms as of 2024. But as of March 2024, Slashdot lists 101 social media platforms. These sites lure users and advertisers to participate in a marketplace of social chat, to see and be seen, to buy and sell, and to be heard.

If one platform does not last in popularity, another will take its place. Emerging sites cater to niche interests and facilitate family and friend connections. They also offer emotional support and promote boutique products, health aids, charities, business brands, education, political activism, and so much more.

Whether – and how – to control of all this activity is an ongoing debate. The U.S. government has recently moved to either limit or ban TikTok® in the U.S. due to Chinese ownership interests. Sparking further controversy, the U.S. Supreme Court is considering a case about federal government involvement on social media.

Social media usage is widespread and continues to grow with a variety of options. People have exchanged the backyard fence and the kitchen table for a carnival's midway of fluid conversation groups and virtual booths of barker's wares.

It is still early days for understanding all the implications of people's online habits and the inevitable changes being wrought by social media sites. Nevertheless, surveys, studies, and experts have ventured some observations and predictions about the effects of these online platforms.


The Positive Effects of Social Media

Social media wields a powerful influence. Some of the positive effects include:

  • Improving users’ mental health
  • Providing an outlet for creativity
  • Offering opportunities for professional networking
  • Creating educational opportunities and social awareness
  • Building new business opportunities and marketing channels


Improvements to Mental Health

Social media’s impact has created many positive effects for society. Mesfin Awoke Bekalu and Rachel F. McCloud concluded in a 2020 Harvard study that routine daily use of social media positively correlated with “three health-related outcomes: social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health.”

While this national study of adult use of social media did not discount the potential negative aspects of addiction to or overuse of social media, Dr. Bekalu reported, “Our findings suggest that the ways in which people are using social media may have more of an impact on their mental health and well-being than just the frequency and duration of their use.” This positive networking in turn reduces feelings of loneliness, social isolation, and low self-esteem.

Social media has created complex human interaction at several levels that happen simultaneously in a single venue, ranging from the most personal to general entertainment and news events in ways formerly segmented in separate communication channels – telephone, print media, one-way radio/TV shows, and telegraph messages.

Social media sites provide opportunities for individuals to connect with friends, family, and like-minded individuals, even across geographical distances. These connections help maintain relationships and interests, fostering a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and support in users.


Personal Expression and Creativity

In today's world, social media provides a cornucopia of offerings in art, innovation, and creativity. Part of social media’s complex connections are the opportunities for sharing knowledge on virtually any topic, collaborative projects, and creative endeavors.

Whether through online forums, sharing documents, group chats, or how-to videos, individuals can work together with others to achieve common goals, create meaningful content, and solve problems collectively. They can learn how to do something they want to achieve for themselves, practice a new hobby, or pursue a sport. Outlets and tutorials foster a sense of camaraderie, community, and social well-being.


Opportunities for Professional Networking

Social media platforms offer opportunities for people to expand their social networks and forge new connections with other individuals around the world that they might not have otherwise encountered. By broadening their professional circles, people can access diverse perspectives, experiences, and resources, which can enrich their lives and enhance their social capital.

This opportunity for professional development was the idea behind LinkedIn early on. The LinkedIn platform has expanded exponentially in 22 years, a testimony to the value of professional connections for both individuals and businesses in a global marketplace.

Research supports the value of social networks in building and maintaining professional relationships. As Makena Shultz at Michigan State University noted, “A great thing about social media is that it allows you access to both your strong and weak connections. Increasing the spectrum of possible connections can help individuals and organizations identify specific parties with shared interests or goals, experience solving similar challenges, or even developed tools or methods for completing a mutual task.”

The instant reach of digital technology and the variety of ways online companies have devised to maintain connections allows professionals to collaborate and share knowledge, opportunities, and innovative ideas.


Educational Opportunities and Social Awareness

Internet sites offer educational resources such as online courses and tutorials, making learning accessible to a global audience, often for free and regardless of a user’s location or socioeconomic status. Many of these educational opportunities account for overcoming language barriers.

Hand-in-hand with educational opportunities are social awareness initiatives and advocacy efforts for humanitarian and social causes on both a local and a worldwide scale. Social media use enables advocates to more easily reach a global audience and discuss solutions to social issues that can better lives, such as increasing physical activity for better health and getting more fun out of life.


New Business Opportunities and Marketing Channels

Businesses can leverage social media platforms with broad audiences for brand promotion, marketing campaigns, and customer engagement. With the assistance of artificial intelligence (AI) and algorithms, users’ search activity on a commercial or search site is directed to brands on social media pages. 

For example, a user who searches for “types of mattresses” on Google, where mattresses are not sold, may later be served mattress ads on Facebook as a result of that search activity. A tracker on the search tags the user and links the user to pinpoint mattress ads on social media, which is known as remarketing or retargeting.

Sean Craig of Elite Digital Marketing explains that “User tracking is not limited to just one platform or website. Ad retargeting is a common practice where advertisements are placed on multiple websites based on a user’s web browsing history. This technique allows companies to reach their target audience across multiple different platforms.”

For example, the user’s search activity suggests an intention to buy a mattress. Since the user appears to be in the market for a mattress, the Facebook ads help that user get to a decision and buy an advertiser’s mattress.

Facebook is in it for the ad revenue, and the mattress companies hope to make a sale. The user might or might not want a mattress, but this type of advertising makes it possible to find one more easily.

Social media provides these types of marketing opportunities for businesses, individuals, and nonprofit groups. For nonprofit groups, online platforms may be used to raise awareness of a troubling issue – such as abuse or chronic disease – and for fundraising campaigns.

Social platforms host community trade groups, barter pages, garage sale days, and nonprofit events. These sites do on a large scale what local community bulletin boards traditionally have done.


The Negative Aspects of Social Media

Social media’s power can sometimes be used in the wrong way to hurt others. Some of the negative effects of social media use include:

  • Cyberbullying
  • Doxxing
  • Child exploitation
  • Addiction



Social media use is fertile ground for cyberbullying. The Cyberbullying Research Center (CRC) defines cyberbullying as “when someone repeatedly and intentionally harasses, mistreats, or makes fun of another person online or while using cell phones or other electronic devices.”

While cyberbullying can happen to people of any age, it is of particular concern for students ages 13 to 17. In a CRC 2023 national study of this age group, researchers found that 55% of them had experienced cyberbullying to the detriment of their self-worth.

Cyberbullying can take many creative forms, such as:

  • Embarrassing comments
  • Negative posts or photos
  • Compromising sexual images (which might be fake)
  • Using social media to spread rumors
  • Threats to the person, the person’s family, or pet
  • Offensive videos or webpages

Cyberbullying acts can be pernicious and harmful long-term, far beyond a passing embarrassment. In the case of a young Ohioan, severe cyberbullying allegedly caused her suicide and led to the state enacting the Jessica Logan Act, requiring schools to implement active countermeasures to cyberbullying.



A type of privacy invasion enabled by social media use is called “doxxing.” Identity theft expert Max Sheridan explains doxxing as “the unauthorized collection and public distribution of personally identifying information or private material for malicious purposes.”

An example is posting a person’s name, home address, email, and telephone number without that person’s permission on a public social media platform. The post might be flavored with a false allegation of association with a hate group.  

The private information is often obtained through social media. Doxxing is intended to cause harm and is typically motivated by revenge, hate, bullying, terrorism, or bad faith tactics.

Real-life examples of doxxing include:

  • Releasing the personal information of the agent and lawyer of a 2016 presidential candidate (reported by Ranker)
  • Publicizing the physical addresses of certain U.S. Supreme Court justices after the decision overturning Roe vs. Wade (according to Cybersixgill))
  • Parking a “Doxxing truck” on a college campus – the truck displayed certain faculty names and images with the accusation they are “antisemites” (reported by The Denver Post)

According to Sheridan, privacy has become an “increasingly rare commodity. Internet tools allow anyone with a connection to become an investigator and publisher. This expansive access to info and social media explains how so many have fallen prey to doxxing.”


Child Exploitation

A dark side of the internet and social media is child exploitation. The global reach and speed of digital communication have enabled child pornographers and predators to flourish behind digital masks and in shadowy groups.

The ease of using social media apps and platforms on mobile devices enables predatory adults to groom children by text and live streaming, share and consume child pornography, and extort children for sex.

Minors also make this exploitation easier, intended or not, by “sexting.” Sexting involves sharing explicit photos through a child's social media account or texting.

Further complicating this exploitation is the rise of “kidfluencers.” Kidfluencers are children with their own channels and followers on YouTube, TikTok, or similar platforms.

Children with large groups of followers can often earn money with ad sponsors. But these kids are not considered actors or “workers.”  

According to Vanessa Cerzarita Cordeiro of Humanium, “Though child actors are able to gain access to numerous protection mechanisms, ‘kidfluencers’ are treated differently because their activity takes place in a private home setting on a platform in which parents consensually participate.” They are not workers due to “the absence of an employer-employee relationship and the fact that children are deemed to be undertaking normal family activities on camera rather than putting on a ‘performance.’”

For this reason, the money they are earning from their “kidfluence” has not had much protection under the traditional child labor laws and regulations. But several states and Congress are working on improving this protection, as well as privacy laws, for these minors. For example, Illinois passed a law to provide some measure of protection for kidfluencers.



Excessive use of social media platforms and their contribution to poor mental health, especially in young people, may be cause for concern. According to the Addiction Center, social media addiction is not yet a formally diagnosed condition that damages a user's psychological well-being, but it is sufficiently recognized to be treatable and covered by some insurance providers.

The Addiction Center defines this type of addiction as a behavioral condition, characterized by “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." In other words, the person is obsessed with social media habits such as scrolling, texting, and posting, will spend time online to the exclusion of other life activities, and may ignore family members and friends.

How can such an addiction and damage to a user's psychological well-being happen? Social media use stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain – too much for some people. The Addiction Center explains that constant interaction with an online platform triggers the “brain’s reward area” chemically in the same way as drugs like cocaine, or like "a syringe of dopamine being injected straight into the system."


Social Media Use Shines a Light on Basic Human Nature

Like everything else in life, social media use is a choice. According to researchers Jenna L. Clark, Sara B. Algoe, and Melanie C. Green, the key to social media’s contribution to the positive impact on mental health and social welfare is where it fosters real human connection. The way to make the best of social media is for users to choose credible providers and to be aware of social media’s pitfalls.

Hawra Hashem, marketing manager and communication strategist, emphasizes that social media use can be “more beneficial than not” if users "keep a healthy perspective about social media's role in [their] lives ... [and] use it to inspire, educate, show empathy, and become better communicators." In other words, use social media with the same respect and demeanor as with in-person relationships.

Considering its positive aspects and its negative risks, social media's growth seems a given. Statista notes that “Social media consistently expands, advances, and grows around the world. The total number of social media users is expected to hit over 5.85 billion individuals by 2027, which would be over half of the world population.” Considering social media's unlimited exponential capacity, this prediction could well be underestimated.

The social media revolution is well under way. The massive changes social media use has wrought in how people connect and communicate are largely positive and have improved other people's lives. It is driven by humans’ very nature to communicate, collaborate, and share information.

But social media shows the dark side of human nature. It is not social media that casts darkness, but its users. Social media exposes the problems humanity needs to solve as well as the pleasures to enjoy.

Facebook is a registered trademark of Meta Platforms, Inc.
Instagram is a registered trademark of Instagram, LLC.
X is a registered trademark of X Corporation.
YouTube is a registered trademark of Google, LLC.
Yelp is a registered trademark of Yelp, Inc.
Blogger is a registered trademark of Google, LLC.
Friendster is a registered trademark of Friendster, LLC.
LinkedIn is a registered trademark of the LinkedIn Corporation.
MySpace is a registered trademark of MySpace, LLC.
Pinterest is a registered trademark of Pinterest, Inc.
TikTok is a registered trademark of Bytedance, Ltd.
Snapchat is a registered trademark of Snap, Inc.

About the Author
Linda C. Ashar, J.D.
Linda C. Ashar, J.D., is a full-time Associate Professor at the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business, teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in business, law, crisis management, and ethics. She obtained her Juris Doctor from the University of Akron School of Law. Her practice spans more than 30 years in Ohio and federal courts. In 2021, she received the Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business Award for Graduate Excellence in Teaching.

Next Steps

Courses Start Monthly
Next Courses Start Jun 3
Register By May 31
Man working on computer