An in-depth reflection on the pros and cons of social media on our wellbeing

This is not another of those articles urging you to take up a ‘digital detox’. But nor is it a biased post with a commercial ulterior motive. These are my reflections on the social media age that we woke up to one morning. At least, that’s how it seems to me. I’m old enough to remember the pre-digital era, but only just. Like most of us, I slipped into using Facebook without a second thought. It went from a niche network of university friends to an online network with an astounding 1.94 billion active monthly users, according to Statista [1]. Rarely has anything so suddenly infiltrated so many parts of our lives, with Facebook messaging often replacing email or text, with photos often being shared in the network, political viewpoints announced to the world, objects bought and sold, jobs advertised, groups formed… the list goes on. But how many of us have really stopped to think about how we use it and how well it serves us? It took me a while to do so, but I’m mighty glad I did. Here are some of the things I thought about social media use (especially Facebook, but also other network.

Envy

Something that often comes up when you talk to people about Facebook is the green-eyed-monster that rises up in us as we scroll down the news feed. Instagram feeds can provoke similar issues. For many, the feed is composed of people showing what a great time they’re having, and, in many cases, how many friends they supposedly have (in the form of likes). No matter how much we tell ourselves we know it’s just a facade and that the number of likes is pretty meaningless, do we believe it? According to new research by disability charity Scope, 62% of Facebook and Twitter users felt their own achievements were inadequate when compared to the posts of others, and 60% said that the sites had made them jealous of other users [2]. The test, I think, is to observe how you feel as you scroll down. Do you feel happy for the people there? Bored? Envious? Competitive? Depressed? Then let your feelings dictate what you do next, be it continuing as you are, limiting how long you spend on Facebook, stopping viewing the news feed or leaving Facebook altogether. For me, this reflection led me to stop viewing the news feed and I chose a photography page I like to be listed first so that generally when I log in I see its latest post. I find that now I more often message friends directly to see what they’re doing, which leads me on to the next point…

natalya-zaritskaya-unsplash-happy-family
Facebook and Instagram often seem to be filled with images of people having a great time with friends or family. Beach holiday image by Natalya Zaritskaya on Unsplash.

 

Unsatisfying communication

Another issue I’ve heard discussed is the unsatisfying nature of relationships that don’t exist beyond Facebook. Much as it’s nice when someone likes something you post, it’s not a conversation. I do sometimes wonder if actual one-to-one communication has diminished because people spend idle moments scrolling through the news feed rather than sending a text or giving someone a call. Ever since I stopped using the news feed, I’ve definitely been interacting more with people one-to-one, which I find so much more satisfying.

Of course, it is possible to get into discussions on Facebook, but it’s not something I see a lot of. WordPress is much better for in-depth discussion I find, while Twitter is rather worse, due to the character limits.

That said, apparently finding out you’ve received a ‘like’ literally gives you a mini high [3], so on one level it is quite satisfying.

facebook-like-button
It is very difficult not to be at all competitive about likes and not to feel envy when we see someone has got a lot of them.

 

Good for groups

In my experience, Facebook is quite good for groups. It’s easy to set one up and people don’t need to log in twice. It’s easy to share photos and videos and comment on them. Facebook groups are the reason I’m still using the network. Of course, face-to-face groups are great too, probably more so, but Facebook groups have the upper hand when it comes to convenience and reaching people from all over the world. Again, it’s no doubt well worth checking in with how you actually feel when you use online groups; if you’re just getting into arguments or using it as a distraction, it might be time to leave.

Facebook: the graveyard of friendships, if you don’t have regular ‘clear outs’

A friend once described Facebook in this way as we chatted about its negative side. It struck a chord right away. I’ve never found the time or the heart to do a ‘friend cull’ and about 80% of my Facebook ‘friends’ are people I knew long ago. Needless to say, the Facebook algorithms love to let me know that some person I once vaguely knew is happily married, or has had a baby. Facebook also likes to remind me of people I was once friends with via it’s ‘what you were doing x years ago’ feature.

Facebook can be great when you are at school or university with a big network of real-life connections, and you’re meeting new people all the time, but when it begins to look and feel like a dismal graveyard it’s time to either do that cull (hopefully if there’s been no contact for several years no-one will take offence), stop looking at the news feed or leave.

If you keep your network fairly small, maybe the news feed items will provide a genuine encouragement to stay in touch with more distant friends rather than simply informing you about people you’ve ceased to care about.

graveyard image
Facebook: the graveyard of friendships unless you’ve had a clear out

 

Political tools, but use with care

I have mixed feelings about politics and social media. Certainly we now have the opportunity to find likeminded people from all over the world and co-ordinate political action. But we also have the opportunity to rant and say the first thing that comes into our head. To anonymously intimidate and threaten. To be highly reactive, not reflective. And to sound off in an (often rather depressing/angry) echo chamber of people who share our views, or bombard those who will simply ‘mute’ us as soon as they see a view they don’t agree with. I’d much rather read a considered blog post, or listen to a vlog, and get into a discussion around that. And I think face-to-face discussion with people we know is probably more likely to impact on their views than a ranty post.

As for getting informed about politics and news on social media, it’s certainly more fun than newspapers but of course there is the risk of fake news when there’s no-one vetting the accuracy of the posts. Social media is also a convenient soapbox for populist characters to make all sorts of claims (you know who I mean, I’m sure…).

Social media use can make us too focused on ourselves and on selfish goals

On the whole, people are happier when they see the bigger picture in life. The more I focus on MY popularity, my likes, my photos and so on, the more self-absorbed I am. We all know someone who is constantly uploading pictures of themselves, and this intense focus on appearance can’t be good for us. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of having a ‘brand’ either. I want my friends to be my friends on good and bad days, through boredom and adventure, regardless of my popularity or attractiveness. For me, that means having real-world friends and not investing too much time in the airbrushed version of myself that social media so strongly encourages.

annie-spratt-woman-talking-selfie
There’s no doubt that social media can make us more self-involved

 

I’m also not really a fan of the fact that Facebook posts are so often about marriage and kids. I’m not sure if it’s their algorithms doing this or purely what gets the most likes, but, while I have nothing against marriage or starting a family, I’d rather see posts about people making the world a better place more generally. And I’d rather see creativity than the consumerism encouraged by checking in and constantly posting about restaurants etc.

I even read that the more photogenic dogs are the most popular ones to be taken from dog rescue centres. No doubt some people even get a pet purely to get more likes – pretty silly.

Thinking about these aspects has reinforced my decision to avoid the news feed, which is even easier if you have the messenger app so don’t need to log into Facebook to see your messages. I only post about myself from time to time and always try to remind myself that I’m not on a quest for likes. Another thing that’s interesting to do is to ask yourself why you are thinking of posting something, and if it’s a very shallow reason, decide not to do it.

Facebook is good for appreciation, but is it creating an environment of forced positivity?

The comments that tend to get most likes are positive ones, and I’d certainly agree that it’s wise to appreciate the good things in our lives. However, I do wonder if the fact that most comments are of the ‘I’m so happy’ type might be making it more difficult for people to talk about their struggles. Prior to the introduction of the sad face, angry face and amazed face, negative posts usually received little reaction, and maybe the introduction of those other options came too late to change the fact that most posts are of the gloating kind. In my experience, it’s only worth airing your troubles on Facebook within the context of a support group.

A few other thoughts:

– encouragement of procrastination

– distraction from work/family/relationship/social life/crossing the street safely!

– there are a lot of bots and prostitutes on some networks

– Twitter is extremely commercial: it can be hard to use it for social ends when so many users have commercial aims

BUT…

– social networks are great for sharing information, and indeed I use them to share bits of ‘unconventional wisdom’ and these posts

– easy to connect with people around the world

– sometimes an enjoyable distraction during a tea break etc.

 

What are your thoughts? How do you use social media? Would you like to change how you use it? Share your thoughts below.

 

References

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/264810/number-of-monthly-active-facebook-users-worldwide/

[2] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201703/mental-health-and-the-effects-social-media

[3] http://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/teens/how-facebook-is-like-a-drug-addiction/news-story/ad4d1f2cc2cc8ec191dcae6d874b9b47

Related links: (some of many!)

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/behind-online-behavior/201408/the-psychology-behind-social-media-interactions

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-first-impression/201611/the-psychology-social-media

https://fashionandstylepolice.com/2017/02/28/is-social-media-making-us-more-vain/

http://www.itsbeccajayne.com/2017/04/01/is-social-media-all-its-cracked-up-to-be/

https://lilpickmeup.com/2017/03/06/21st-century-breakups-divorces-are-harder-with-social-media/

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