Is social media getting you down? For many in our polarized country, the answer is #youbet.
The granddaddy of social interaction – Facebook – has even recently had to defend itself from the claims of former employees like Chamath Palihapitiya, who told a group of Stanford business students last November that “we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”
Not surprisingly, current Facebook executives disagree.
BBC Technology details a blog post by Facebook’s director of research, David Ginsberg, who said there was a continuing internal debate at the company about whether time spent on social media was good for people.
Ginsberg said there had been “compelling research” that linked depression in teenagers to more time spent on social media.
But he also said that there were demonstrated benefits showing social-media use could boost peoples’ moods and help maintain needed social ties. What made the difference, he said, was how people used Facebook.
“Just like in person, interacting with people you care about can be beneficial, while simply watching others from the sidelines may make you feel worse,” wrote Ginsberg.
So is it just a big case of user error?
“I think the thing about Facebook wars and political posts in general is that Facebook thrives on outrage,” said Michael Juge. “Outrage is a commodity in 2018. We go on there to look for stimulation. Back in the day, seeing an email from a friend or seeing the weather online was enough to satiate us. But over the years, we have become desensitized to that. We needed something more visceral. Outrage fills that hole. So people post politically charged stuff to get likes and even to get in Facebook wars.”
“If you look on Facebook, you start to think that everyone hates each other,” notes Stella Stevens. “That we live in two different counties where one side and the other will simply never agree.”
In a BBC Future story last January called ‘Is Social Media Bad for You?’ there were some interesting statistics – and the caveat that since social media is relatively new, it’s hard to know anything definitive yet.
In 2015, researchers at the Pew Research Center based in Washington DC wanted to know if social media induces more stress than it relieves. In the survey of 1,800 people, women reported being more stressed than men.
Twitter was found to be a “significant contributor” because it increased their awareness of other people’s stress.
Interestingly though, Twitter also acted as a coping mechanism – and the more women used it, the less stressed they were. The same wasn’t true for men, who had a more distant relationship with social media. Overall, researchers concluded that social media use was linked to “modestly lower levels” of stress.
A good or bad mood may also spread between people on social media, according to researchers from the University of California, who looked at the emotional content of over a billion status updates from more than 100 million Facebook users between 2009 and 2012. Bad weather increased the number of negative posts by 1%, and the researchers found that one negative post by someone in a rainy city influenced another 1.3 negative posts by friends living in dry cities. The better news is that happy posts had a stronger influence; each one inspired 1.75 more happy posts. Whether a happy post translates to a genuine boost in mood, however, remains unclear.
Researchers have looked at general anxiety provoked by social media, characterized by feelings of restlessness and worry, and trouble sleeping and concentrating. A study published in the journal Computers and Human Behaviour found that people who report using seven or more social media platforms were more than three times as likely as people using 0-2 platforms to have high levels of general anxiety symptoms.
Perhaps part of our problem is, well, us.
“I believe we have not evolved to humanize the other on the other end of a terminal the way we humanize a person when dealing with him/her face to face,” opines Juge. “There is absolutely no merit to responding to anonymous comments in You Tube or New York Times articles. But even in Facebook where the person on the other side is not anonymous, we tend to imagine the person on the other end as a caricature stereotype.”
Dr. Tara Jungersen, an associate professor at NSU Florida College of Psychology, says that she thinks the inability to discern fact from intentional provocation on social media is part of what fuels some individuals’ inability to separate their cognitive and emotional responses.
“Having empathy for why a person believes or posts what they do can help manage these reactions,” she said.
That’s true for all but the trolls who come into online conversations and interactions with the intent to cause havoc. A 2014 Psychology Today article, ‘Internet Trolls Are Narcissists, Psychopaths, and Sadists’, advises you to do what your parents maybe told you long ago – just ignore them, because it’s your suffering that is fuel for their fire.
As for your friends, or friends of friends on Facebook or elsewhere, maybe it’s time to limit your interaction with them too. If you don’t want to unfriend them, unfollow them.
“There are several people I have just unfollowed on social media because their posts are not something that makes my day better,” said Jennifer Scogin.
Or simply be on your guard when engaging with people who you know don’t share your views.
“Occasionally if I know that the conversation can be reasonable [I will participate],” said Terry Devin. “If it starts getting ugly, I bless them and leave. I do like to read the comments and look for things I haven’t thought of on the other side.”