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Is Our Obsession With Social Media Harming the Planet?

Social media usage rises with each passing year, but our culture of sharing, consuming, and double tapping has a hefty carbon footprint.

Written by
Brightly Staff
Published

When considering our individual environmental impact, there are certain actions that spring immediately to mind—dietary and shopping practices, tons of travel, constant commuting—but some of our less-than-obvious habits may be even more insidious. Our collective obsession with social media, for one.

Social media usage rises substantially with each passing year, an upward trend that's likely to continue. And while there are plenty of great things that come from utilizing these platforms, our culture of sharing, consuming, and double tapping also comes with some unsustainable baggage.

Keep reading to learn how social media can harm the planet—and how to scroll more sustainably.

The Carbon Footprint of Social Media

Social media platforms are designed to grab your attention and hold it for as long as possible. This translates to a population that is always connected to Wi-Fi or using data, not to mention constantly recharging devices.

All of this requires significant amounts of electricity, which has consequences when considering carbon output and natural resource usage. The social media companies themselves require a wealth of resources to run, including large data centers which, globally, utilize around 205 terawatt-hours of energy each year.

Past research indicates that scrolling on TikTok has the largest carbon footprint of all social media platforms, followed by Reddit, Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat. We crunched the numbers even further, looking at how many grams of CO₂ equivalent (gCO₂Eq) each social media network produces with one hour of usage per day over the course of a year. We also looked at the carbon equivalent in miles driven.

While this graph shows the impact of just one hour of usage per day for a year, many people spend more time scrolling than just one hour a day—whether it's on a single platform, or on a variety. A Global Web Index survey found time spent on social media varies by country, with some areas spending up to four hours scrolling per day.

How Do Social Media Networks Compare?

If you were to scroll for just one hour per day over the course of a year, this is what your carbon footprint would look like on each popular social media network.

TikTok

Carbon Footprint: 57,597gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 143 miles in a car

Reddit

Carbon Footprint: 54,312gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 135 miles in a car

Pinterest

Carbon Footprint: 27,521gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 68 miles in a car

Instagram

Carbon Footprint: 22,995gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 57 miles in a car

Snapchat

Carbon Footprint: 19,053gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 47 miles in a car

Facebook

Carbon Footprint: 17,301gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 43 miles in a car

Twitter

Carbon Footprint: 13,140gCO₂Eq per year
Equivalent Of: Driving 33 miles in a car

Other Unsustainable Effects of Social Media

Be honest: How many trends (or micro-trends) would you be aware of sans social media? Between targeted ads and the more subtle art of product and lifestyle pushing that comes courtesy of influencers, social media creates a ceaseless cycle of consumerism that makes online shopping that's hard (read: impossible) to avoid.

The fear of missing out and falling behind our peers can make us even more susceptible to buying products you don't really need, or upgrading items sooner than necessary. All of this creates an unsustainable cycle of production, shipping (and probably returning), all without the mindfulness that should come with making a purchase.

In addition, many of the brands that use social media to advertise are fast fashion companies, meaning that products are made with low-quality and unethically-sourced materials that, in turn, have a shorter lifespan.

How to Make Social Media Use More Sustainable

Social media isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and it isn't all bad—there's a lot of good that can come out of using these platforms.

Implementing more sustainable practices around social media is easy. First, consider putting a time limit on the app. This feature is built into most smartphones and provides a pop-up notification when your daily limit has been reached. It's very useful for habit building (or, more likely, breaking).

Next, try to curb the urge to impulse buy. Keep a list of items that catch your eye and sit on it for a week or two before purchasing. Even better, consider tracking down similar goods second-hand, from a small business, or locally. If it helps, consider unfollowing influencers who up your consumption and fill your feed with things that feed you in other ways. If you're totally over the app's consumer nature, cull your follow count to those you actually know.

And finally, use those DMs to invite an old friend out for coffee, and make a general effort to reconnect with people in-person more often. Face-to-actual-face interaction is a uniquely human experience that can't be duplicated in the virtual world.

Reporting by Jenna Mignano, Calin Van Paris, Tehrene Firman