Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I am not a trained psychologist or media analyst… or really much. I teach people how to make art, unless I’m talking about that don’t take my words as professional advice.
I was recently asked to prepare a 10 minute discussion about social media. This may seem like an odd request without any context. Basically, our students are preparing to take sit exams which will determine their eligibility for University. Part of their prep courses involves a variety of workshops and panels; the one I will be involved in is designed to prepare them for the written task. We are given stimulus, in this case a sheet with articles about social media, and asked to respond to this in any way we see fit.
Opening up the stimulus material my eyes immediately settled on ‘psychological effects of social media’, anyone who has been reading this blog diligently knows that this is an area I have struggle with. Anyone in my personal life knows that I made the decision a few months ago to permanently delete my Facebook account.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that social media has been a huge trigger for me. Yes, ashamed. It seems so silly that something so widely embraced and unquestioned can send me into panic attacks or fits of depression; admitting this simple fact makes me feel weak.
I know face level ‘facts’ and hear the occasional criticism of this major industry. We’re raising a generation of narcissists who are fueled by a lust to achieve likes or retweets, these platforms are addictive, they are a platform for cyberbullying. We’ve all heard the rhetoric but these factors considered I haven’t really probed deeper, all I know is that I feel a wave of anxiety and pain when I see myself being left out or I compare myself to others.
I wanted to start looking deeper, why is social media so dangerous? It doesn’t take long to start finding studies about these issues and I wanted to highlight a few of these for you.
Did you know there are people who study loneliness? I’m not sure I can think of a more depressing job description right now, but I am pretty biased. A study carried out by John T. Cacioppo was illuminating and terrifying all at once. Turns out we need face-to-face contact to curb our perception of social isolation. Even if we have consistent digital contact with others it won’t fulfill a deeply ingrained biological need for contact. Unable to curb this perceived loneliness impacts us in subtle yet profound ways; fight or flight instincts kick in and the production of white blood cells is disrupted. In close knit communities cardiovascular issues are markedly lower. Fascinating, but the decline of these small communities is impacting our well-being as we spend less and less time together.
My psychologist often talked about flight or fight instincts and that I was often in this state. While not the sole reason, I feel that there’s no denying that social media negatively impacted my mental health in this manner.
Further anxiety inducing elements of social media ties in to this removal of face-to-face contact. In human interaction very little is communicated verbally. Consider when someone tells you “I’m fine”. The words don’t mean much on their own; their body language and tone of voice illuminate if they are happy, angry, amused, sad, detached or, occasionally, actually just fine. Without these social cues to give you context we are left only with language to inform us. It is ambiguous and for those who already have anxiety issues can cause severe distress as we try to grasp what is actually being said.
We may perceive these are unfortunate side-effects of the platform, but former high ranking employees of social media platforms have made statements confessing immense feelings of guilt for their work. Facebook intentionally takes advantage of a chemical within our brains called dopamine which controls the reward and pleasure centres of our brains. Receiving ‘likes’ creates that feeling of social validation that we end up craving.
Seeking social validation is often a major factor of BPD, which you can read more about in my previous blog post Validation. It does make me pretty cranky that a company that has built their reputation with wholesome cries of “we just want to connect people” have taken advantage of human vulnerability without considering the psychological impacts, but that’s business, right? While I feel they should take accountability for forming their business on such ill advised principles it is also up to us to look after ourselves and keep our priorities in check.
Technology and social media as a whole should not be demonized, there are several companies which have made an effort to address mental health concerns as we move into the digital age. While there is of course no cookie cutter solution to these complicated issues and I am in no way being paid money by Google, I am really keen to start checking out their suite of wellbeing tools as they come out. While Google is doing it’s part, there are several smaller developers who are solely dedicated to bringing wellbeing to digital platforms. In addition to meditation, mood tracking and health applications there are several apps which are made to regulate mobile phone usage and assist users to access social media in a more mindful manner. This includes locking apps of your choice during certain windows and passive aggressively telling you how many minutes you have spent on your phone that day every time you unlock it. I have liked Space and ( OFFTIME ) in particular for these purposes.
Digital technology is still in it’s teething process. Social media platforms and wellbeing tools are so young when compared to the span of human history and how we used to interact with each other. I’m optimistic that society can work out some balance here, but until we’re confident that we have we need to be careful. It’s dangerous to dramatically alter the norms of human interaction within the span of a generation and expect a smooth transition.