Is Using Social Media Bad for the Environment?

The devices we use may come with their own carbon footprint, but social media itself is a little greener than you'd think.
March 15, 2018, 8:30am
Photo by Andrii Hlukhovskyi via Wikimedia Commons.

"Oh FFS" is a new column picking out all the stuff you love most in life and looking at how it's destroying the planet. Enjoy!

What is it? Social media.
What’s that? Apps and websites like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram that details our tawdry daily minutiae. It’s the news, but you.
Is it biodegradable? They don’t exist physically so whether they’re biodegradable or not is the kind of question you’d only ask if you’ve been smoking doobies, bro.

How bad is the problem?

I’m old enough to remember a time when social media didn’t exist. Ah yes, back when we only had Nokia 3310’s to text on, CD players for music, and the theme tune from the Hovis advert theme blared in your ears all year round. It’s hard to get your bonce around it now, what with social media filling up a massive, addictive hole that no one knew they had in their lives. So, as this column goes, is the prevalence of social media in any way detrimental to the environment?

“When it comes to understanding the direct environmental impact of social media, you really need to look separately at the two different sides of the coin,” explains Andie Stephens, associate director of corporate carbon measuring agency, The Carbon Trust. “First, there is the manufacturing, use and disposal of the devices that you access social media platforms on, such as smartphones, laptops and desktops. Then there is the background infrastructure required to provide access to those platforms, which includes things like data centres, internet routers and the base stations that make mobile internet accessible.”


In essence, it’s not just the energy we use to make social media happen that damages the planet, but also the things we’ve built that we can access social media on. Stephens continues: "The biggest part is the energy needed to power devices and data centres. With data centres – which can get very hot from all the equipment consuming a lot of electricity – a significant part of the total energy use comes from the need to provide large amounts of cooling to keep things operating smoothly. Then you have to consider the manufacturing, which often requires the mining of metals and use of hazardous chemicals.”

But what about specific social medias? Is Facebook worse for the Earth than Snapchat? Is Instagram less green than Twitter?

“As a general rule, something that uses more data has a higher environmental impact,” Stephens continues. "So, sending texts uses a lot less data than photos, and photos use a lot less data than videos. This means that to a large extent the impact of a platform will depend on what you tend to share through it, and how many people are downloading it.”

In that sense, we can empirically say that: yes, Facebook and all of the twee cat videos you constantly share on it make it the worst social media platform for killing Mother Nature. But even though Facebook and it’s incessantly saccharine videos are obviously bad for not just your own psychology and attention span but the environment too (you diabolical, cat loving, video sharing, data consuming monster!), it’s still actually quite good in that it limits the carbon footprint of human communications.


“Digital communication will almost always have a much lower impact than physical communication, for example, sending a letter will require an amount of fuel use,” Andie tells me. So, what can I, the average social media addicted person, do to limit my impact on the environment? Well, it turns out the answer is: nothing except whinge at them for not being eco-friendly apparently.

“A lot of the work to improve social media lies with big companies," concludes Stephens. "If their customers give them clear signals that they really care about green issues then they will definitely act faster in reducing their footprint. You should also remember that social media can also be a really powerful tool to change behaviours and attitudes. It is a great way to reach out to people and make them aware of environmental issues, or encourage them to make positive changes in other areas of their lives. In some cases it can also help people avoid travelling long distances – including by high impact air travel – by allowing people to connect virtually. So, in principle social media can enable environmental benefits that outweigh its direct impact.”



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