By the time you go to sleep tonight, there's a good chance that you'll have looked at your phone hundreds of times since this morning — including glances at social media.
It’s something pretty much all of us do these days, a tendency amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. And while social media can bring us joy and connection, it also has drawbacks. It can make us feel bad in comparison to others, fracture our attention span, and undermine our privacy.
According to a new analysis by the market research firm Compare the Market, using social media can also contribute to the climate crisis. Every time you check your accounts, it uses energy created mainly by fossil fuels, and over the course of the year, the resulting greenhouse emissions heat up the atmosphere.
While social media itself isn’t damaging the planet, the research highlights the unexpected ways we still rely on fossil fuels — and the need for countries to phase them out and world leaders to invest in renewable energy.
Compare the Market analyzed 10 of the most popular social media platforms and found that using TikTok generates the most emissions per minute of use at 2.63 grams of carbon dioxide, followed by Reddit (2.45 grams of CO2) and Pinterest (1.3 grams of CO2). Using YouTube, in contrast, is just responsible for 0.46 grams of CO2 per minute of use, but since YouTube tends to involve longer videos, it might have a higher cumulative emissions total.
The tool, which you can find here, allows anyone to type in the number of daily minutes they spend on each of the 10 platforms, and then calculate the annual emissions associated with that usage. The developers determined the energy use by using a Samsung Galaxy phone.
“Social media is strongly integrated within our daily lives,” Brett Mifsud, general manager of energy at Compare the Market, said in a statement. “However, what most people don’t realize is the extent of the impact our social media habits are having on the planet. Like every technology, scrolling on social media has an environmental footprint, which is a lot higher than people might think.”
Mifsud said in the statement that using each of the 10 platforms for five minutes each day would result in 20kg of carbon a year, which is the same as driving in a car for 52.5 miles. The 20kg figure is probably a low estimate for many people, especially since the average time spent on social media is 145 minutes per day, and most people concentrate on a few apps.
If you spend all your time on TikTok, the fastest growing social media platform, the carbon footprint would be different — 145 minutes on TikTok every day for a year causes nearly 140kg of carbon emissions, which would be like driving a standard car for more than 350 miles.
When you multiply that by billions of people around the world, the impact becomes clear.
But that doesn't mean you or the social media companies are to blame. The impact comes from the reliance on a global system of fossil fuel production. If the main sources of energy changed worldwide, then the impact would decline.
The majority of electricity still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas — substances that, when burned, release heat-trapping gases that warm up the planet. As a result, nearly every facet of our daily lives contributes to the climate crisis, from the food we buy at grocery stores to the clothes we order to the ways in which we travel.
The world is paying more attention to the rising energy use of the technology industry, particularly the vast emissions associated with cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, which alone uses more energy than many countries, and non-fungible tokens, also known as NFTs.
Some tech companies, such as Meta (the owner of Facebook and Instagram), have secured renewable energy for their own operations. But that still leaves the energy associated with individual people using their technology. The only way that situation can improve is if countries phase out fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy.
The good news is that many social media platforms have become hubs of climate information. Environmental advocates and organizers use social media to share essential environmental information and help people take climate action.