Your alarm goes off in the morning, waking you for your day— what’s the first thing you do? If you are anything like me, you grab your phone and start scanning to see what’s been going on while you were off line in your slumber. The morning starts with a quick briefing on what friends and family have been up to, a cute puppy clip, someone angry about politics, some advertisements and some news. Before getting out of bed your brain just received more information than brains used to receive all day!
Well, That Was Fast!
In less than 20 years, the amount of information we take in on a daily basis has increased anywhere from four to seven times what we processed previously. Of the estimated 400 billion bits of information per second that reach the brain, only around 2,000 bits are actually utilized to consciously process. The brain sorts out pertinent versus impertinent based on where you have chosen to concentrate. Think about that— your brain is receiving all that information and then “choosing” to process and utilize what seems vital at the time; so what if you decide to start “downloading” things like advertisements, the comments under a photo, who liked a post, what that person ate for breakfast, and so on, all these choices for information are being taken in as you have instructed your mind to do. This might all be OK, until you are no longer processing information that is actually of pertinent value to you.
Why Do We Do It?
The unique characteristic of individual psychology says that communal life; listening to and participating in communal concerns as well as the desire to belong, is central to its philosophy and social practice.1 For this reason, we are innately wired to want connections of others. The fact that we are curious to see what someone had for breakfast, what music they like to listen to, or we have other things in common are absolutely reasonable and expected. Social media gives us the new ability to connect with different people all over the world in real time, for free. This opportunity has never been available at any point in history like today. With this collective global diversity, we can learn from each other, teach one another and find out some really interesting facts. If we were all in a room together, we would probably seek out information as well as examine our similarities and differences. The issue is, we are not all in a room together— we are behind screens and sometimes forget how to translate and decipher all the information that comes our way.
What Could Go Wrong?
Although the Internet has already changed our modern lives dramatically, the effects on our psychological health are understudied and the research is scarce.2 Meaning, we do not really know what all the benefits and dangers of the internet/social media are. Sharing on social media can be a great way to seek out positive affirmations, support and inspire others. However, sharing on social media can also lead to negative feedback, rejection and feelings of loneliness. On the receiving side, the content we take in may affect us positively or negatively depending on the post and our frame of mind at the time. Two people looking at the same post may take the information in very differently. Think about a fitness demonstration by an athlete; there will be people who are inspired to accomplish the workout, too, and those who feel sad by their own perceived limitations. Same goes for when seeing images of beautiful models or luxury items; there will be people who get excited and those who are left feeling rather down.
Authenticity: In a World of Information, How Much Truth Do We Really Have?
People wish to have a solid understanding on how they identify themselves. Every decade of our lives is spent examining and reexamining our likes, dislikes and making decisions based on who it is we want to be. Unlike image, identity is more of an essence than a literal representation. On an individual level, defining one’s personal identity has become increasingly multi-faceted and complicated, with many contributing strands.2 Having a positive self-presentation is a long-standing tendency; it can be seen to have its roots in terms of the evolutionary advantages. Having a positive self-presentation could have encouraged others to trust and like one another, leading to the sharing of resources and other beneficial communal assets. Examples in more recent times include wearing your “Sunday’s Best,” taking out the fancy flatware for holidays, and cooking special dishes are all ways we try to produce a distinct experience for others. Encouraging affirmation to one’s identity promotes positive self-esteem as well; it feels good when people acknowledge your efforts. You can see how the Internet has not created this desire; it merely perpetuates it in a way not seen before.
When developing an identity aimed at receiving attention, there may be some liberties when it comes to authenticity— this may be intentional or circumstantial. Someone may intentionally post content meant to be misleading or outright false so they can have a particular response from others, affirming their identity even if that identity is untrue. The more common case is in circumstantial liberties to authenticity, posting the highlight real more so than the entire string of events. Example: Today I worked on a tedious project for work, got a headache from staring at the computer, kept getting interrupted by the noisy construction, never got to the gym, and only drank coffee. Translates to: picture of coffee mug with caption, “Ah, the little things in life”. This only shows one element to the day, and may lead viewers to think everything is going great, one sip of coffee at a time. Nothing bad, no real lies, but in leading viewers to think everything is easy breezy it may cause them to think, “Geez, why doesn’t my life go easy breezy?”
The Trouble with “Friends” and “Likes”
Charlotte Blease from the School of Philosophy at the University College Dublin in Ireland studied the similarities and differences of Facebook Depression and Facebook Envy.3 By now you are probably pretty familiar with how Facebook works; people post and their “friends” respond. In Blease’s findings, she noted that triggers of envy differ from depression in that envy may be triggered when users perceive their peers, whom they judge to be of similar social status and the same relative age are progressing far better. It was found that high numbers of friends and followers, with constant updates and posts may be involved in triggering depressive affect by overwhelming feelings. Also in this scenario, having high numbers of friends and followers but not having much response to personally posted content can cause feelings of inadequacy and depression. Much like having a great story to tell at work to your coworkers, while no one even looks up, this feeling of seclusion doesn’t feel good.
There are beautiful connections and relationships to be found online and over social media. Persons with limitations in how they can travel or leave their homes are able to find true love and friendship with people just an Internet connection away. Patients can see their healthcare providers from their computer screen or wireless device. Coaches and trainers can support clients in need of instruction and motivation. Activists have the ability to spread their messages, ask for help and give aid to those in need. This vast social network works perfectly with how we are already accustomed to behaving for centuries. We are neurologically attuned to be social creatures because of our mirror neurons, which allow us to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were our own.4 Researchers have shown that mirror neurons mediate the emotional response fundamental to human relationships; empathy. When humans identify the suffering of another, they are pushed to respond in a comforting way.
Think of all the Internet challenges and campaigns we have seen and helped grow over the last handful of years: weight-loss transformations, disease research, school programs, disaster relief. A study conducted at Concordia University, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada suggests autonomous or independent motivation to support charitable events was influential in gaining support for charitable causes.5 As participants from Facebook were able to independently find and support causes like homeless youth and breast cancer research, they were more likely to support the cause offline as well. This is believed to be because when involving prosocial activities, that are highly meaningful in association with the person’s personal values and sense of self, people feel more fulfilled with their independent contribution or involvement.
These unexpected connections between socioeconomic levels, cultures, age groups and more are all possible because we are connected like never before. Ideas and resources can be shared easily. Support and love can be given readily. So many wonderful things can come out of the use of social media, we just have to do it right.
Do It Right…
1. Limit the types of pages and people you follow to just the most positive and beneficial to your life.
2. Allot your time so that you have balance between the virtual world and your physical surroundings.
3. Translate the highlight reels of others and realize it’s just a snapshot of a much larger picture.
4. Share positive messages, and interact with the people you enjoy following. It’s OK to debate or discuss difference, just keep it respectful.
5. Disconnect for one day a week, use this time to reconnect with yourself, family, friends, and your surroundings.
1. Belangee, S., Bluvshtein, M., & Haugen, D. (2015). Cybersocial Connectedness: A Survey of Perceived Benefits and Disadvantages of Social Media Use. Journal Of Individual Psychology, 71(2), 122-134.
2. Brunskill, D. (2014). THE DANGERS OF SOCIAL MEDIA FOR THE PSYCHE. Journal Of Current Issues In Media & Telecommunications, 6(4), 391-415.
3. Blease, C. R. (2015). Too many ‘friends,’ too few ‘likes’? Evolutionary psychology and ‘Facebook depression’. Review Of General Psychology,19(1), 1-13.
4. Wagner, L. A. (2015). When Your Smartphone Is Too Smart for Your Own Good: How Social Media Alters Human Relationships. Journal of Individual Psychology, 71(2), 114-121.
5. Ferguson, R., Gutberg, J., Schattke, K., Paulin, M., & Jost, N. (2015). Self-determination theory, social media and charitable causes: An in-depth analysis of autonomous motivation. European Journal Of Social Psychology, 45(3), 298-307.