In many parts of the world, August is synonymous with downtime, perfect for catching up with old friends and keeping up with current ones – nowadays an activity that is often done through social media rather than a phone call or a visit.

In fact, for most people, the only difference August will make to their social media routine is that they will be online for longer. According to Global Web Index data for 2019, there are 3.484 billion people around the world on social media for an average of two hours and 22 minutes a day. Break this down into countries and we find the Filipinos out ahead with an average daily social media use of three hours and 57 minutes, the Brazilians coming in second with three hours and 39 minutes and at the other end of the spectrum, the Japanese who are averaging just 48 minutes a day of online interaction.

While the argument exists that virtual social interaction is a poor substitute for the real thing, this method of communication has probably been around for longer than we think.

Internet relay chats, or IRCs, were first used in 1988 and were still being enjoyed by a significant number of people well into the 1990s. Then came the first social media site as we know it, namely Six Degrees which was established online in 1997. In the early 2000s, LinkedIn was the latest innovation along with image sharing sites such as Photobucket. YouTube and Facebook were set up several years later, in 2005 and 2006 respectively, and have dominated the scene ever since, with Facebook still attracting 2 billion users, according to Global Web Index figures.

For millennials and those coming after, a world without social media would be life but not as we know it, to paraphrase a line from the 1987 hit, Star Trekkin. According to eMarketing.com, 90.4% of people in this age bracket are active on social networks, a situation that can have both positive and negative repercussions, depending on levels of awareness.

On the plus side, social networks expose us to a wide range of opinions and also vast amounts of information. There is also the advantage of being able to connect with people you may not otherwise have come into contact with, particularly helpful for those who feel on the fringes of the groups around them. News of events both past and future are an added bonus and, of course, there is the simple pleasure of keeping in touch with family and friends who are geographically out of reach.

All well and good, but it is worth keeping in mind that algorithms take into account our online footprints and then manipulate what information reaches us while our Facebook feeds are steadily reduced to a circle of  ‘friends’ whose previous posts we have ‘liked’ or which are deemed relevant to us.

That aside, the key to healthy social media use lies in moderation – the fail safe for most things. While considered periods of interaction can lead to social support and

a wider sense of community, aimless trawling through other people’s accounts can easily result in a feeling of isolation due to our tendency to compare image, activities, or numbers of likes with our own.

A study conducted at the University of Copenhagen in December 2016, involving 1095 people, found that Facebook envy was common and those who suffered from it reported feeling more content when they abstained from using the platform over a period of a week.

Social media is also a playground for bullies, who feel more at liberty to attack their victims, often under the guise of a different identity.

Artfully using technology to combat bullying online and keep a step ahead of the game, the coordinator for optional activities at King’s College, the British School of Alicante, Elisa Pascual, describes how King’s students studying robotics were kitted out with high-tech eye-wear and other software for a session on empathy, designed by Samsung and the Ministry of Education in Spain.

The equipment gave the students first-hand – if virtual –­ experience of being targeted by cyber-bullies, so that they would know what it feels like and think twice before engaging in similar behaviour – a preventative measure designed to stop any harassment before it starts.