Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Over the past decade we have witnessed increasing debate and fear about the impact of social media and technology on society. Television shows such as Humans, Years and Years, and the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma have played off these fears to warn us of social media’s potential side effects. The Social Dilemma is so effective because it includes testimony from technology industry and social media warning of the dangers of their products.

Social media has, without doubt, altered how we socialise. We often have a much wider network of ‘friends’ and social media allows us to contact them with increasing ease. Often, when first meeting someone, your ‘friendship’ is secured by a friend or follow request on one social media platform or another. Your private interactions aren’t quite so private anymore, when you use your story to share your social interactions with hundreds, even thousands, of acquaintances.

There is genuine fear over how fundamentally social media has changed socialisation. Indeed, much of this fear is legitimate. We must be cautious of how much social media influences us and how we spend our time, particularly when regarding our mental health. But, if there is one thing that lockdown and social distancing restrictions have taught us, it is that the need for physical contact with people is irreplaceable and intrinsically human.

If social media really has irreversibly altered our social lives and our need for in-person contact, then why have lockdown restrictions faced such a colossal backlash?

For months people went without seeing anyone outside their household: separated from their daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, partners. Despite the number of Zoom quizzes, meetings, and unlimited access to social media, restrictions still faced phenomenal backlash and resentment. The lengths people went to have some sort of “normal” conversation demonstrate that social media insufficiently sustains human desire for interaction. A weekly clap made people feel good. It felt like they were a physical part of something again. Neighbours would gather for meaningless chats, just to engage in conversation with someone beyond their household.

Lockdown has shown that technology and social media simply cannot replace the need for physical socialising. Large groups calls failed over Zoom, it would end up with two people chatting while the rest desperately tried to think up an excuse to leave the call. Every call would be plagued with at least one person often asking “can everyone hear me?”. Zoom drinking nights with friends could simply never equate to a pub trip with friends. However fun, you are always left awkwardly alone and drunk in your room, the empty gin and tonic glass as the only evidence of a social evening.

Tighter restrictions in recent weeks have left many university students struggling. It is not social media, this time, which is causing this devastating impact on young people’s mental health, but social restrictions. Actions taken by Pollock Halls in Edinburgh, like taking away all outside seating areas, and locking first years in single rooms alone, is pernicious on their mental health. University alone can be a terrifying experience, particularly in the first year. Socialisation is an integral part of university, and if instead, safe outside social areas were created, where social distancing could be monitored, there might be some hope in alleviating the mental health crisis. If, however, universities continue with their disappointing efforts, without grasping the repercussions on the mental health of its students, there will be potentially devastating consequences.