I have been fascinated by this topic for a while and have been dying to learn and write about it. I love psychology and psychopathology and this falls right under it.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about this, but lately social media has come under fire again. “For what,” you ask. Well, because there is a link between the decrease in mental health and the increase in the use of digitized stimulus. Many of the people who are behind the phenomena that are the devices and applications that we utilize daily are asserting that they are keenly aware of the “beast” they’ve unleashed. However, they have no clue how to put it on a lease without crumbling the advertising infrastructure, among other things. The only thing they seem to do now is protect their own young from getting too caught up in the social media frenzy.
Obviously, there are people who feel like this is an outlandish claim because of the myriad of benefits that they or others have experienced at the hand of social media. It is without a doubt that social media is a powerful medium that can bring things to fruition like no other traditional media could have even dreamed. Unfortunately, not many people are also aware of their own mental degradation; the things that they are consumed with, the things that they can’t pay attention to, the need for constant dopamine hits, etc. The destruction that social media is leaving in its path are things that will take a decent amount of work to rebuild back to its former glory. To my knowledge, we haven’t even hammered out long-term consequences on developing minds.
Let’s unpack this.
What is Social Media and How Does it Work?
To start, let’s get some definitions in here. I like to do this so that we are of the same understanding when tossing around phrases and terms. Without establishing the playing field, we might as well be playing two different games.
Social media is succinctly defined as the “websites and applications that enable users to create and share new content or to participate in social networking”. You can get a bit more specific where you nail down what exactly makes a thing “social media”. But, this is a nice and open starting definition.
Now, social media functions by analysis of an enormous quantity of data, making algorithms for predictions, catching your attention, and compelling you to engage with it by spending something I like to call your “attention currency” which– like any currency– is finite, so to speak. There are copious amounts of ways to gather and process that information, but that’s neither here nor there. The meat of this operation relies heavily on the “honeycomb framework”. Sounds sweet, if not ever so slightly nefarious.
The Honeycomb Framework, according to Wikipedia (or this published study if you have access to it) is a series of seven functional building blocks that serve to identify the ins-and-outs of how social media works. This method is used primarily by companies for getting precious little honey bees (read: you) to invest in them. The seven building blocks are identity, presence, sharing, conversations, groups, reputation, and relationships. The following graphic below quickly explains how each of these little pieces functions on one side of the honeycomb and its implications on the other.
Social media platforms largely use everything in the honeycomb, but almost all have an emphasis on different things. In this study, they reference four specific companies that have these particular focuses: Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Foursquare. Facebook has a high emphasis on Relationships, but there are four other variables that make up the platform: presence, identity, conversations, and reputation. LinkedIn is a professional networking website, so naturally, you’ll have an emphasis on identity with some focus on relationships and reputation. Foursquare has an emphasis mainly on the presence, with identity and relationships following close behind. Without looking at the study, can you guess what YouTube falls under?
From there, companies start building their online brand and marketing tactics after gathering this information through R&D and executing on it through many applications and specialized help.
There is quite a bit more that goes on behind the scenes, but this, for the most part, serves our purpose. Needless to say, these things are finely tuned into you. Most of the times, way more than you’re tuned into yourself.
I’m going to list a few beneficial aspects of social media before I get to the nitty-gritty. This post isn’t a means to demonize social media. I encourage a healthy use of the internet, as it’s growing more crucial for living in the modern day and age. This post is just meant to help to bring some ideas to the forefront of the conscious mind so that we can be a little more aware of our interactions with social media and how it individually affects us.
Why is Social Media Important?
So, there are tons of reasons as to the importance of social media. First, and most importantly, the fundamental function of social media is the dissemination of different types of easy-to-access information. The sheer amount of information on the internet is unimaginable. If you think about it it’s probably already there waiting for you to stumble upon it. From contemporary issues to lighthearted topics, the internet is brimming with information that is ready to be consumed. And all of this is possible by no better ad campaign than word of mouth. Of course, handy and incredibly intelligent machines like google make more relevant topics surface, but still keep other pieces of information indexed and readily accessible to you.
Free and easily accessible information is incredibly important. Without knowledge, you cannot appropriately act at the behest of your interests. Additionally, easily accessible information is doubly important for those less fortunate than you or I. I do confess that — at some point– there is such a thing as knowing too much, but that’s another topic for another day. Generally speaking, getting as much information as you need, in any capacity, to make informed decisions in your life is mostly good.
I know some may not think of this, but personal development is definitely a prominent benefit of social media. Some people may notice their changing footprints over time online, through constant monitoring or a startling montage as they look at their past, but I don’t know if many attribute it to the use of social media. When you’re online, you develop your own voice. No matter how you come across it, the ability to debate, discuss, challenge, and unpack your views in a sometimes controlled environment, hones your ability to navigate a public space with confidence. When you share ideas with thousands of different people, you hash out your own thoughts and feelings on matters that are important to you. Even when you might not think that something is important to you, exposure to those topics helps you to identify your interests.
Following through in a similar vein, social media inadvertently teaches you how to build your resiliencies. When access to the world wide web became such a blasé affair, it was eventually used like and recognized as a necessary utility in any space that people occupied. That being the case, however, that means that all sorts of unscrupulous and mean-spirited people have also found their way to the internet. Usually, they occupy a space on the internet where they can brood together in a contained space. But, sometimes, they venture out into the mainstream forms of social media and spread that ill-will, whether just to prod at sensitive nerves, otherwise known as trolling, or for some other silly reason. In any case, having to interact with those people, you’ll eventually have to settle on a way to cope in a healthy manner to deal with your emotions during and after an encounter. Soon enough, after enough random confrontations, you’ll have a better grasp on how to get a hold of your emotions.
More positively, social media inspires creativity! There are a plethora of mediums online through which you’ll be exposed to many different ideas and activities; and even if there isn’t one, you can make a niche for yourself and others like you. Blogs, Pinterest, YouTube and things of the like are prime breeding grounds for new content creators. The idea of being a facet in the paragon of knowledge on some topic and/or the fact that you genuinely care to give your spin on a topic to help other people is addicting and equally rewarding. When you combine this with participating in other similar communities and building your web of contacts, you can even turn it into a professional gig where you can make money being seen as a “social authority” on the matter. How neat is that? Getting paid to do what you love and building your brand has never been easier.
“Well, you’ve listed a ton of great benefits, but really what’s so bad about social media? And surely, the good outweigh the bad, right?”
Well, it may outweigh them depending on your values or it may not. But it’s still good to be aware of the things that you can be subject you when you are online.
How Does Social Media Affect Us?
You may be thinking that social media use shortens your attention span. Being that many major news and educational leaders assert that attention spans have been decreasing, I’m not surprised. They may have also cited the popular study done by Microsoft Canada’s Consumer Insights Team. This is apparently a myth, based on an article done by Mr. Simon Myers of the BBC.
The study that is typically referenced is this one from back in 2015. Many articles that you see today link to it, but the link is dead. I did manage to find it and the accompanying pdfs. You can read the Microsoft Canada’s study using the Wayback Machine here. The short of it is that our attention span has decreased from about 12 seconds down to a mere 8 seconds. They quickly compare it to that of a goldfish’s attention span at 9 seconds.
When Mr. Myers set out to uncover the truth, he found that the evidence is murky at best and downright wrong and misleading at worst. He spoke to many people, including those at the National Center for Biotechnology Information at the US National Library of Medicine and members of the Associated Press. “Neither could find any of record of the research that backs that up,” he stated in the article.
So, no, social media is not shortening our attention spans. At least, based on the evidence that we currently have it doesn’t. But what it does do is simulate a sort of ADD mindset when interacting with and participating in things online.
Inability to Focus
We now seem to have an increased proclivity, or perhaps an affinity for, multitasking nowadays. Research is coming out that suggests that social media makes it harder for us to focus on one task for an extended period of time. They call it “media multitasking“, according to this article on NYU Steinhardt. The author uses Facebook as an example in demonstrating this, where at any given time you have multiple streams of information on your screen simultaneously. Things like the ads and options on the side, the chat feature in the bottom corner, the newsfeed in the middle with several sponsored posts amidst posts and pictures from friends and family. It’s a lot. Also, in a study cited within, “heavy media multitaskers” were found to be more susceptible to environmental stimuli. This means that newfound “ability” also has the unfortunate side effect of hindering information processing and killing productivity.
Social Comparisons, Jealousy, and Depression
As if the day-to-day real life social comparisons weren’t enough, we go online and it is just a highlight of people’s best moments. They’re having fun with friends at parties. They’re going on trips around the world. They’re practically throwing away what looks like your monthly rent on frivolous things, seemingly without a care in the world. The smiles appear brighter. Their skin looks magnificent, not a worry line in sight. They seem to be living their best life.
Meanwhile, you come home to a cramped apartment from a 9-5 job (after an hour of LA, NY, or Houston -style traffic), eat a cheap dinner, and drink box wine, before heading to bed, only to repeat the process over the next day. But… Maybe you don’t even live that way, but you still feel that way after lazily and absentmindedly scrolling down your social media feed. Unfortunately, this can lead to some feelings of jealousy; it’s pretty much inevitable when you are constantly inundated with positive aspects of another person’s perfect life, not a speck of dirt in sight. Usually, it comes from trying to one-up your peers or measure your accomplishments against theirs.
One study from Guilford Press showed that generally, people feel worse after spending a great deal of time on Facebook. While the Depression and Anxiety journal takes it a step further and says it’s depression. And it’s due to this innate tendency that we have to compare. Anecdotally speaking, I’ve had a terrible time using Facebook. I’ll admit that it was useful for keeping in contact with friends from school and family from the reunion, among other things. But overall I just stared deadpan at my phone screen watching them take these wonderful trips and living life and it left me feeling quite unproductive, unworthy, jealous, angry, and upset. Very tumultuous emotions that would only ease up after I spent some time away from Facebook. I’ve since decided that it would be better if I just limit Facebook to once every few weeks. I haven’t felt better in a long time.
Several Risk Factors for Adolescents
There is one thing that I’m terrified of when it comes to introducing my daughter to social media and the internet in general. It’s that I may not have developed her resiliencies enough to handle what she sees on the internet. I’m very scared that she may not be able to cope when she sees her friends living the life that she wants to live but can’t. She may not be able to cope with having heated arguments on the internet. And I’m scared that among other things it might send her straight into the arms of depression. It’s nice to see that my concerns aren’t unfounded. In the four articles below, they all speak about the risk factors that are inherent to social media and its impact on adolescence.
- The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families (2011), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)
- Social Media and Teen Depression: The Two Go Hand-In-Hand, Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
- Benefits and Costs of Social Media in Adolescence (2017), AAP
- Digital Media, Anxiety, and Depression in Children (2017), AAP
These four articles (you can read them if you’d like more in-depth information) all basically say the same things. They are concerned about an early introduction to the inappropriate materials, cyberbullying and online harassment, anxiety, “Facebook depression”, decreased social skills, privacy concerns, influential advertisements, and worse yet, suicide due to all of these factors. I’m sure the reality it’s not as bad as it seems when it’s all lined up here plainly, but as a parent, I can’t help but be worried. Thankfully, I have tons of studies and articles that I can read to help me proactively guide my child and give her the necessary tools to live her best life.
I think, in closing, this video sums up a lot of what I’m starting to feel about social media. Take a look at this video; it contains two clips one from Sean Parker and another from Chamath Palihapitiya.
Don’t be alarmed by the maybe hyperbolic/alarmist way of speaking. As stated in the video by Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook, for example, does a hell of a lot more good than bad. But they — Parker and Palihapitiya — seem to understand what they’ve contributed to an entity that is causing a problem on the mental health front.
“… the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem. It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other. I can’t control them. I can control my decision, which is that I don’t use that shit. I can control my kids’ decisions, which is that they’re not allowed to use that shit”. – Chamath Palihapitiya
Now, I’m not going to say that you should just remove yourself from all forms of social media and “get back to the earth and ‘real people'”. I think that is an incredibly unrealistic, unnecessary, and extremist approach. Certainly, with the right attitude, like making sure that you don’t fall for the social comparisons trap among other things, you can enjoy all the benefits of social media and minimize the damage that it can do to you.
How to Use Social Media Without the Anguish
If you still want to delete all of your social media accounts because of the things I’ve posted here, by all means, go ahead. If all the things I’ve listed was enough of a reason for you to leave, then I can’t really argue with that. But it is not necessary to remove yourself from the internet because you’re scared of what may happen to you or your children, in fact, I think you’ll be doing a disservice to yourself. You don’t have to be a consumer zombie. All it takes is some diligence on your part. Here are some things that you can actively keep in the forefront of you mind and do while you use social media.
Get Some Perspective
“That is their journey. Mine is different– and maybe not how I planned– but that’s okay.” People from all walks of life are bound to go through some type of stressful situation in their life. It’s a part of the human experience. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. Furthermore, it could even be a greater struggle than you might have thought and if it’s not well, frankly, it’s none of your business. Don’t put yourself in a position where you feel inferior to someone else and it let it eat away at you. “First-world problems” or “third-world problems” nobody wants to feel like their struggle is invalid. Give them the courtesy of recognizing that they are a human with their own unique struggle in life. You’ll thank yourself for it later and so will they.
“Don’t Be Motivated By What Others Think of You”
It’s OK to have a “boring” or “average” life if that is what you truly want. I live one and it’s perfectly fine. And even if it isn’t and you’re working hard at achieving your goals, in time, you will have what you want at that moment. There is no race. (
Except the race to being a complete fraud online, if your goal is to be seen as this cultured, well-traveled, fulfilled, and fun individual online. None of that matters, especially if it isn’t true.) Enjoy the life that you have to live, because you’re the only one who gets to live it– and live it once. Enjoy the journey in your life, take a minute to stop and smell the growth, because it’s much easier and much more potent to celebrate small victories as they happen.
Meditate and Express Gratitude
I’ll always include meditation, because it is a stellar way to check in on yourself. From there, you can make plans on how to fix things so that you can do and feel better. Not only that, but it’s a great time to also express some gratitude in your life. When you spend more time being thankful for what you do have, you spend less time being sad about what you don’t. It’s as simple as that. Be thankful that you get to wake up another beautiful day. Be thankful that you have a roof over your head. Be thankful that you get to play PUBG or Overwatch. Be thankful that you were able to catch Black Panther in theaters. Be thankful that you know how to cook some bomb ass oxtail with rice and peas. Be thankful that you have that really comfy pillow or that really nice tablet. Be. Thankful. Because it really, truly, honestly could be much worse.
Learn to Manifest
This one isn’t really necessary, but it can help ease the burden of what you want and don’t have. It’s OK to have desires; not because someone else has what you want, but because you truly want it. If you want more things in your life, Write It Down and Make It Happen. I won’t get too much into this right now, but when you put forth the energy that’s light and attractive, similar things will gravitate toward you. For instance, if all you do is sulk, listen to scream-o, and do your hair a certain way, you’ll attract people who do the same thing. Life and manifestation work in similar ways. Put forth the energy that you want to receive and it may even pay dividends.
I hope that this helps and taught you a few new things! I know it did for me. Tell me how you or someone else around you has fared while navigating the internet in the comments below!
Until next time,
Peace and peace.