Your Free Social Media Costs Way More Than You Think

A new (and really good) reason to stay off TikTok

Key Takeaways

  • Social media companies, like all online services, burn through power in their data centers. 
  • TikTok uses the most energy, YouTube the least. 
  • Going green can save big companies big bucks.
Someone using social media on a laptop and a smartphone.

Austin Distel / Unsplash

Your free social media sites come with a substantial hidden cost—their carbon footprint. 

A new study shows that social media sites have a huge carbon footprint. Few of us think about the hidden costs of "free" internet services, but their data centers require vast amounts of energy to run and to cool. Electricity is such a significant cost that server farm locations are often chosen based on its local cost, near relatively cheap hydroelectric plants, for example. 

"From an engineering standpoint, a data center can switch to renewable power even if it did not figure in the center's original design," Ari Bernstein, founder of a carbon capture company, told Lifewire via email. "But, facilities are often built with long-term power purchase agreements in place for non-renewable energy. Also, renewables cannot handle a facility's entire load without some form of backup power, which can be very expensive." 

Carbon Something

Using Compare The Market’s Social Carbon Footprint Calculator, you can see exactly how much energy is used by your favorite (or least favorite) social network. Unfortunately, the figures are presented in CO2 emissions per minute, which doesn’t tell us anything about the efficiency of the various data centers. A hugely popular site with hyper-efficient data centers might still create more atmospheric pollution than an inefficient-yet-unpopular service. 

"Renewables cannot handle a facility's entire load without some form of backup power, which can be very expensive." 

Still, the numbers are interesting. According to these numbers, the worst offender is TikTok, at 2.63 grams of carbon equivalent per minute, per user. That’s around two pounds (almost five kilos) per year, just from five minutes of TikTokking per day. Reddit and Pinterest come in next, with Youtube way down at number 10 in the top ten list, with just 0.46gCO2Eq. 

Now, those figures might not be particularly useful in terms of rating the relative efficiency of each network, but they make one thing very clear—free internet services are far from free, and just using them contributes measurably to climate change. 

Keep Cool

Data centers burn a lot of power. You're running bank upon bank of computers, all of which need to be kept cool. It's possible to run data centers on renewable energy—that's how Apple does it—but it's not as simple as it might seem. 

"Data centers need 99.99% uptime reliability. But wind turbines and solar panels only provide electricity intermittently when power from the wind or sun is available," says Bernstein. 

Batteries are one option to fill those gaps, but batteries themselves have their own environmental impact and are expensive and inefficient.

Someone standing in aisle of a server room.

Erik Isakson / Getty Images

"Instead, a center would need to contract with the local power grid to purchase electricity when its dedicated load source does not produce electricity," says Bernstein. "And this means that the center will consume the same, mostly dirty, electricity as consumers for most of the time—even if it has dedicated renewable power."

Even Apple, which claims that it is now 100%-powered by renewables globally, admits to covering 20% of that number with carbon offsets. 

What Can You Do?

Switching to greener services might make us feel better, but it won't make companies behave any better—how will they know why you switched. Government regulation is one option, and probably a good one, but there's a more expedient incentive: Green power can be a lot cheaper. 

"Apple understood there is a financial benefit when adopting renewable energy, for example in our Long Island grid where electric costs are $0.22/kWh solar panels pay back their initial costs in less than seven years. The solar panels last 30-40 years, this means no electricity costs from 23-33 years," Frank Dalene, author of the book "Decarbonize the World," told Lifewire via email. 

The most significant factor, then, might be momentum. It takes time to change to renewable power, and tech industry behemoths are no different. But given that big business values profit and "shareholder value" over pretty much everything else, the simple fact that greener is cheaper might be enough. In the meantime, you've got one more reason to feel guilty about spending all that time on TikTok.

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