Since the meteoric rise of social media in our culture, there's been a barrage of messages about its negative impact. Apparently we all need to reconnect with the 'real world', and should stop being shallow drones to social media - where selfie culture breeds narcissism and there are lurking threats of cyberbullying and cyberstalking. The social media fast, where you unplug from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all other social networks for a set period of time, is practically the new juice cleanse. But do we really need to stop retweeting, liking and seeking out the perfect emojis? Is social media really the social evil it's made out to be?

Research into social media actually shows a pretty mixed picture, often highlighting many social and cultural benefits to social networking, as well as its potential risks. So how can social media have a positive social impact?

Selfies, hashtags and screen time: can ‘plugging in’ be positive?

At the community level, social networking has had a huge impact on the ability for social and political movements to spread their messages and effect social change. In 2014 #BlackLivesMatter galvanised what some are referring to as a new civil rights movement in the US, after several killings of unarmed African Americans by police, while closer to home #illridewithyou spread rapidly to show support for Australian Muslims in the aftermath of the Sydney siege.

Of course a hashtag alone doesn't change the world - online engagement has to be backed up by real world action and more nuanced understandings than can be contained in 140 characters - but mediums like Twitter connect people with the same passions for social change. They raise global awareness and dialogues around social and political issues on a scale and with a speed that we have never before seen in human history.

Perhaps most importantly, research is starting to show the huge potential that social media has to make a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing, especially for young people, who have grown up in an era where digital media is a taken-for-granted part of their daily lives. This goes against many of the common messages that the community, especially parents, hear about online activity - that screen time needs to be strictly limited and social media relentlessly policed in case kids are being bullied, led astray, or exposed to inappropriate content. 

But for the generation who can't remember 'before the Internet', social media is not just a way to communicate, but a fundamental part of their social lives and self-expression - the distinction between the online world and the 'real' world isn't always clear cut. Importantly, social media can give young people, especially those who may be marginalised, excluded or fundamentally lonely, the opportunity to connect and build a sense of community, no matter where they are. Imagine, for example, the gay or transgender teen growing up in small town Australia - while 15 years ago this could have been an experience of incredible alienation and isolation, social media now opens up daily, real time opportunities for someone in this situation to find support and a sense of belonging.

Selfies, hashtags and screen time: can ‘plugging in’ be positive?

Even the much derided selfie has academics and activists on the fence in terms of its social value - while some psychologists argue they represent self-absorption and an obsession with physical appearance, other researchers and some feminist perspectives have considered them as a form of self-exploration, empowerment and body positivity.

The Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), a research centre that unites young people, researchers, practitioners and policy makers to explore the role of technology in young people's lives, has found that social media benefits media literacy, education, creativity, self-expression, personal relationships and civic engagement, and can also be a powerful tool in mental health solutions like suicide prevention. The Safe and Well Online project of the CRC is working on creating new technologies that build on social media's ability to bring people together in a positive way, like the 'Appreciate A Mate' app, which generates gorgeously designed and customisable messages of appreciation and affirmation that users can share across social media platforms.

Like any social space, social media can bring out the worst as well as the best in people, and like any technology, too much screen time can be a distraction or even an obsession. But if you find that sending that tweet or scrolling through your Instagram feed makes you feel inspired, connected and uplifted, you're not alone. And you can probably hold off on that social media 'fast'.

Twitter: @shakrobertson