One feature that will surely define this era is the creation and proliferation of the internet.
And within this transformative new technology, still in it’s infant stages, is the most widely adopted new communication platform in history: social media.
If companies like Google, Facebook and SpaceX reach their goals, soon we’ll have the entire human population with access to online social networks.
The promise of social media? To connect with friends, make the world a more open place, and keep up to date with your social circles.
Social media has enabled everyone with access to the World Wide Web the ability to see what their friends are doing, to interact in debates about controversial news and much more.
It would be easy to assume, therefore, that this new democratisation of social interaction, that we would feels closer to others, more connected, and thus happier.
Does relating to another person online, through online chat or viewing a friend’s pictures from an event last night, actually result in an enhanced feeling of closeness?
As parents it’s a common wonder whether the hours and hours kids spend on social sites scrolling and clicking incessantly actually is healthy for them and whether it really makes the happier.
All of these concerns are both valid and urgent.
The expansion of Internet usage is not slowing. Our culture has forever changed because of it, and how we as humans are being affected by it is a worthwhile point of discussion.
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With over 2 billion active social media accounts currently online, which is growing dramatically every single year, the average social media user spends 2 hours and 25 mins per day on social media.
As of the year this article was written, Pew Research Centre found that 65% of adults use social networking websites:
These are astonishing numbers. Given the number of people currently using Facebook, for example, if it were a religion, it would be the 3rd largest in the world.
What is social media?
Before we discuss the relationship between social media and happiness, I want to make it clear that by using the term ‘social media’ I am referring specifically to websites that are designed for users to interact with other people, whether it be through chat, audio, pictures or video.
The first known social media site, by this definition, launched in 1997, called Six Degrees. You won’t find it anywhere online though, because it was purchased by a larger company in 2001.
The reason I am telling you this, however, is to give you a sense of just how new this technology is.
Do you ever remember, or have you ever heard of, any invention in the history of the world that has grown in it’s usage in such a short period?
However, Six Degrees is a site barely anyone on Earth knows of.
Facebook and Youtube, the two most interactive social media platforms, were only available to the wider public in 2006.
That means that less than 10 years ago, which in cosmic scales is a few milliseconds ago, was the first time anyone had access to the product that over 2 billion people currently use monthly (much more by the time you read this).
This really is only the very beginning of the very first stages of the initial technology of online social connections, and it’s foundation is the internet, another ever evolving platform in itself.
Therefore the relationships between social media and happiness will drastically change over time, and in my opinion, over the next decade, a lot of what we discuss here will require serious review.
From what we do know now, however, there are some key things to understand.
Does social media affect happiness?
To answer this question it would be useful to first question why people use social media at all.
Everyone has slightly different reasons, but given there is a limitation on what can be done on each social networking website, there has to be a commonality to the user’s intention.
Think about it for yourself. Why do you log into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin?
Anita Whiting and David Williams found that there are 10 common reasons people report for using social media:
- Social interaction
- Information seeking
- Passing time
- Expression of emotion
- Things to talk about
- Sharing information
- Knowing about others
The thing to notice about this list is, they all are experiences which come under the umbrella of one essential desire: pleasure.
And herein lies the first risk of social media: addiction.
Social media addiction
Addiction arises when we have an experience that our brain perceives as pleasurable, thereby signalling the brain’s reward system. We use the word addiction to describe a person’s need to return back to this activity, due to that individual’s desire for the ‘pleasure hit’ in a compulsive way that eventually interferes with his or hers normal daily activities and/or responsibilities.
To you and I, this may sounds like an extreme way to describe how people use social media.
But, have you ever seen a group of people in a restaurant being completely unaware of who they are with, or their surroundings, due to being glued to their smartphone?
Have you ever heard or even seen someone nearly get run over from being so utterly absorbed by their Instagram feed?
Have you ever personally checked your social media page more times than needed, wasting time, even when you know there is likely to be nothing new?
I have. It’s worrying.
Why we become addicted to social media
So the question becomes, why do we become addicted to social media?
There are a few potential reasons.
Firstly researchers have found that the state our brain goes into when we desire a mental break is the same as when we look at common pictures on social media, such as people’s faces.
A study from UCLA neuroscientists found that the prefrontal cortex of our brain is engaged in the same way when we look at common social media content, as when we feel the need to take a breather.
Matthew Lieberman, one of the founders of the study, noted on the findings of the study:
“When I want to take a break from work, the brain network that comes on is the same network we use when we’re looking through our Facebook timeline and seeing what our friends are up to”.
So you can see why this could become addictive: essentially it provides a stimulus of pleasure.
In this sense, it would be very fair to argue that in situations where a short mental break is needed, social media provides quite a reasonable source of relaxation.
My concern, however, is not the temporary and fleeting use of social media, but what this temporary use of social media over prolonged periods could lead to: emotional dependency.
The risk with using social media in this way is it could become almost like a chemical ‘hit’ for when you need a small ‘pick me up’.
Where you go to social media for an emotional and psychological buzz, to the same extent you could feel withdrawal symptoms and you replace real human communication, such as face-to-face contact, with the artificially built image of your friend’s life online.
In this sense, short term relief could lead to long-term isolation and unhappiness.
Again, quite like substance addiction.
A second reason social media may become addictive is quite disturbing: self-obsession.
Researchers at the Freie Institute of Berlin conducted a fascinating study that found a link between activity in specific regions of the brain’s reward system and Facebook use.
The researchers recorded functional neuroimaging data of the participants during three different situations:
- Receiving gains in reputation (positive social feedback concerning one’s character)
- Observing the gains in reputation of another person
- Receiving monetary rewards
The participants also had to fill out a questionnaire to determine their ‘Facebook intensity’ score, focusing on a few staple habits of Facebook use such as how many friends they have on the platform, how many minutes per day they use it, how the use of Facebook interacts with their general life, and more.
They found that when receiving self-relevant feedback, a specific part of the brain’s rewards system, called the nucleus accumbens, lit up.
The nucleus accumbens plays a role in processing reward stimuli, reinforcing stimuli and things that are both rewarding and reinforcing (addictive drugs, exercise and sex).
But more alarming than this, is that the researchers also found a statistically significant correlation between the amount of activation of the nucleus accumbens and the individual’s Facebook intensity score.
Essentially, this means that the more this pleasure area of the brain was active, the more the individual was likely to spend on Facebook.
In addition, it was found that the activity of the rewards systems in the brain in relation to the monetary gain did not correlate with Facebook intensity score.
As the researchers in the study noted:
“We then demonstrated that, relative to observing gains for others, the processing of gains in reputation in the left nucleus accumbens predicts the intensity of Facebook use across individuals… Furthermore, nucleus accumbens activity in response to monetary reward also did not predict Facebook use. Finally, our control regression analysis demonstrated that the activity in the left nucleus accumbens due to self-relevant gains in reputation is explained primarily by Facebook use.”
The diagram below, from the original study, shows a visual representation of these findings:
Taking a logical approach
How does this link back to how social media and happiness are related?
Well, I bring up this research to demonstrate the impact social media is having on our brain.
It’s also important to now critically debate how this would impact one’s day to day life.
The result of addiction, in itself, has harmful effects. As I eluded to earlier, the feeling of needing to visit these website numerous times per day, at the expense of being able to carry out one’s normal day to day responsibilities, is extremely harmful in the long-term.
Additionally, given that this research also shows that Facebook usage can be so appealing because of the ‘likes’ and comments one gets on pictures and videos of themselves, as well as feedback from status updates and personal opinion, it makes me wonder how this would shape the actual content we post on the sites.
For example, would you ever imagine sharing the absolutely worst moments of your day online?
When you looked your worst, when you were stressed to the point of overwhelm or when you had an argument with your significant other.
Of course not. People only post the very happiest moments: the perfect angled selfie, the picture perfect scenery of their holiday, and so forth.
Why? Because the attention and feedback we receive lights up the reward centres in our brain, and this keeps us wanting to share more and more content of the same manner.
The problem with this is that it is forcing us to consistently portray to the world a wholly fabricated identity. One that is devoid of the balance of human experience.
And that’s the long-term risk I see with social media.
It consistently encourages you to build a mental image of yourself so far from what’s true, that you may even begin to adapt as a human being to try to maintain this image when you see your friends in person.
Real human connection and all meaningful relationships have embedded within them the victories as well as the turmoil of daily experiences.
With those you truly love you share the good and the bad, and their feedback on both topics helps us grow and develop, learn and improve as humans.
Trying to consistently impress people with how great you life is by sharing snap moments of the positive moments has the potential to create a severe imbalance in your life.
Secondly, I want you to consider the practical downfall of sharing positive moments in your life online.
I was once talking to a man in his early 20’s. Talkative, easy going and social in nature. The perfect user of social media, you would think.
We began talking about social media after I noticed his mobile phone was probably 10 years old. It has no capabilities for apps like social media, video, or pictures. All it could really do was call and text other people.
He went on to tell me he deleted all of his social media accounts. And the reason he gave stuck with me since that day.
He explained that when he was using social media, he could see everything all of his friends were doing, what they were up to and the new things they have experienced and achieved, amongst other things too.
He then began to realise that because of this, when he actually saw his friends in person, there was nothing interesting to talk about.
Anything that did come up in conversation about how they were doing or what they had been up to, he already was aware of.
Nothing was surprising, there were no pictures to share that he hadn’t already briefly seen, and there were no emotions to share or express about one’s recent adventures, as he was already aware of it all.
Now I should probably say, this particular gentleman I met was clearly more self-aware than the vast majority of people in the world. To be so conscious of such a thing is surely a sign of true wisdom.
So I don’t find it abnormal that others haven’t come to this conclusion themselves, including me.
This struck me so hard that since then I have drastically reduced social media use, for this one reason alone.
Positive use of social media
Notice at no point have I suggested the abandoning social media altogether is a good idea.
There’s no doubt social media has a truly beneficial purpose, specifically in the area of sharing important information to others.
The young man I spoke to cease all use of social media, but I don’t necessarily think that’s the best idea either.
As a culture and as a species, we have benefited from social media, greatly. Namely, the dissemination and democratisation of information.
By far the most positive result of this incredible invention we call social media is the free access to receive and share information.
Information truly does change the world. Now, with social media sites, any individual that happens to find themselves in a situation where they have information that could be beneficial to the wider public can send it out into the cyber-ether and be picked up by anyone with an internet connection.
This simply did not exist 10 years ago (from the time of this writing).
I know that at some point in the recent years due to social media, you and I have learnt about some government corruption that has taken place, some upheaval in a 3rd world country, learnt a new piece of ground-breaking science, or even watched or listened to a tutorial on something that has helped us in our day to day life (I learnt a new way to tie a necktie that I’ve used ever since!).
As a result, I do think the general wisdom of society has increased. I may be wrong, due to the fact that an almost equally bad amount of information is also being shared, but at least it’s clear we have the opportunity for real psychological growth over the next coming decades.
Why this really all matters
I wouldn’t be surprised if at this point apart of you is thinking ‘Kulraj, you’ve taken all this social media thing way too seriously’.
For the most part, I agree with you, I do take it seriously, but I don’t think I take it too seriously.
The reason is, what many people use social media for, as we’ve discussed above, may be replacing real social interaction.
This may, on the surface, not seem like a big deal. Unfortunately, the science seems to disagree.
A study from Stanford University looked at how the use of online communication platforms (social media), as well as other uses of media (watching videos online, reading, listening to music, emailing, texting, talking online and face-to-face communication) effects different markers of well-being.
The sample size was impressive: 3,461 girls from North America aged 8-12. What the results established was eye-opening to say the least.
The study found that a number of well-being measures, including hours of sleep per night and the number of friends one’s parents think are a bad influence were negatively associated with online communication usage.
As the research study writes in it’s discussion:
Certain types of media use—video (five of five analyses), online communication (four of five analyses), and media multitasking (four of five analyses)—were consistently associated with a range of negative socioemotional outcomes. These negative results for video are consistent with results from other studies (Funk & Buchman, 1996; Rideout et al., 2010; Van den Bulck, 2004), but the results for online communication and media multitasking are entirely new. Conversely, face-to-face communication was consistently associated with a range of positive socioemotional outcomes. Even though prior research found that pre- and early adolescents who communicated online more often felt closer to their existing friends (Valkenburg & Peter, 2007), the opposite associations of face-to-face communication and online communication for positive socioemotional experiences found in this study suggest that face-to-face communication and online communication are not interchangeable”.
The most important thing I want you to note here, however, is the fact that the research found a separation between the effects on well-being between two activities that are highly regarded as the same in today’s society, namely communication online and offline.
The researchers continue to discuss the findings:
… We have shown that high uses both of media that do not involve interacting with others as well as media that do involve interacting with others tend to be associated with negative measures of 8- to 12-year-old girls’ social well-being. The results here suggest that even media meant to facilitate interaction between children are associated with unhealthy social experiences. The idea that online communication would open up a rich social world that benefits young girls’ social and emotional development is belied by these findings”.
Now, as a responsible writer, I think it’s important for me to point out that the researchers did remark on the fact that they did not find a causation between these two things.
This means that at this stage in our understanding on this study, we can’t say for sure that one thing caused the other, and it’s possible that the relationships between online communication and reduced well-being could have gone the other way.
Meaning, that those who already hold markers of negative well-being are then more likely to use online communication tools more frequently.
That being said, it’s not something we can ignore. Further research is required to answer this question, but until it does, these findings should be taken sharply into account for our own lives.
Especially when further studies seem to show some support for this study.
A study by the University of Groningen in The Netherlands alone with the University of Oxford here in the UK found that some markers of social media use also does not translate positive offline.
Having looked at the behaviour of 117 individuals aged 18 to 63, they found that those who use social media as opposed to those who do not use social media do not have larger offline networks, nor does it result in feeling emotionally closer to their offline networks of friends.
This was in spite of the fact that the time spent online was associated with a larger online network of ‘friends’.
What do these preliminary studies essentially find?
Firstly, online communication may indeed have a very real negative impact on our personal and social well-being.
Secondly, the development of relationships online has no real carry over impact on our relationships offline.
Therefore it is reasonable to suggest that, along with everything we’ve discussed regarding the dangerous potential for addiction, limiting social media usage would be beneficial.
Recommendation for social media use
Clearly, the relationships between social media and happiness has not been firmly established. It’s so new that we are only just beginning to understand how this is shaping our psyche and behaviour.
We’ve discussed in this article the potential hazards of over using social media, as well as the benefits that come with being able to share ideas, opinions and information online.
So, there are a few practices that will help you ensure you can utilise this important technology without having to be affected by it negatively:
1. Be conscious of intention
The vast majority of social media users never think about why they are going online. They just log on aimlessly, just to ‘see what’s going on’.
That’s a trap. It’s much better to know why you are going online before you log in. For example, did you read an article recently that you wish to share with your friends? Have you got an update you wanted to post?
Are you looking to see if something you were expected to be uploaded has been put up, for you to review?
This allows you to use your time well when you are online, thereby still using it when needed, but not wasting your day away re-clicking the homepage to see if anything interesting has come up in the last 2 seconds.
2. Set a specific time frame
Again, no need for a hard and fast rule here, but it’s worth keeping in mind a certain amount of time you are happy to spend on social media each day.
I personally don’t use social media sites for more than 20-30 minutes per day. Usually I am reviewing new articles and important messages for upcoming events. I very rarely just browse.
I still think this is far too much, but due to the nature of my work where the internet is used quite often, it’s more required.
Some of the most productive, happiest and most successful people I know use social media probably 30 minutes per week, if I had to guess.
I wouldn’t recommend using social media for more than an hour per day.
3. Remove notifications
The fastest way to help you achieve the above two recommendation is to do this one. On your mobile phone, go into the Setting menu of each social media app and switch notifications off.
This means you have to actively go on social media when you want to, and when you are ready, and not be constantly dragged back into it by other people.
This is by far the single best thing I can recommend to avoid social media addiction.
In the future, as virtual reality and nano-technology becomes more prevalent, there is a good chance laptops, mobile phones and desktop computers will be less in use.
With this technology, social interaction will likely be replicable to an almost real if not completely indistinguishable-from-reality form, and thus the effect of social media will be greatly different.
However, we are currently living with the form of social media that we have today, the use of social interaction via a computer or mobile phone screen.
With this, we have some initial research to suggest there is a real chance for social media addiction, and a reliance on this technology for emotional comfort and well-being.
We can take some simple steps to minimize these impacts, whilst still using social media for their clearly positive functions.
In doing so, we can actually prove social media is an overall beneficial invention with minimal to no drawbacks.