Is social media addiction making us less happy, or are we already unhappy to begin with?
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Edvard Munch's "Melancholy". Image Credit: Wikipedia (public domain)

Edvard Munch's "Melancholy". Image Credit: Wikipedia (public domain)

Social media isn’t really a good yardstick to measure ourselves with

A new study coming out next year for the 2017 journal Computers in Human Behavior finds that social media users who frequent a large number of platforms, in the range of seven to eleven, were more likely to exhibit depression and anxiety. Though this would seem to be a pretty bad sign, it isn’t readily apparent where the problem lies, or who exactly is more vulnerable to it.

In fact, the study notes that greater engagement on the platforms allows people to find communities of support they might not have ordinarily had.

Rather, the problem seems to stem from two big, but still not well-understood, factors. The first, an omnipresent one noted in other studies, is that “Hell is other people.” That is, relationships themselves aren’t the problem, but that our peers online are acting out “multiple roles that included imaginary audiences, judges, vicarious learning sources, and comparison targets,” per another Computers in Human Behavior report, on selfies and teens, compiled this year. Social media interactions can create unrealistic expectations that users feel anxious or depressed over because they know they cannot live up to them.

In fact, the people in those pictures aren’t always living up to that perception. But we who are only seeing the cheery Instagram and Facebook end product, dubbed “edited self-presentation” by the authors, don’t know that. (The study actually found that all of the participants were photoshopping their selfies to varying degrees.)

Hence, the common feeling that “all my friends are doing better than I am” based on their digital photo albums. It is still unclear, however, if the research will show that people end up in these states because they’re predisposed to such thinking, and the platforms reinforce it, or if it’s the strain of keeping up with the Jonses (and Kardashians) that sends them down a path.

The second is the fact that multitasking doesn’t come easily to most people, so managing more than 1-2 online personas at a time becomes a chore, and just by the hours involved, for starters. These have a measurable effect: Recent surveys in Preventive Medicine, Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, and (again) Computers in Human Behavior have shown that excessive internet use strongly correlated with sleep loss and reducing cognitive skills.

Then, as people become sluggish and disinterested in the world around them, they may look more and more to those preferred platforms and remote interactions. Or as Dr. Gloria Mark, a UCI Professor of Informatics, put it to Science Daily, “When you get less sleep, you’re more prone to distraction. If you’re being distracted, what do you do? You go to Facebook. It’s lightweight, it’s easy, and you’re tired.”

Edvard Munch's "Anxiety". Image Credit: Wikipedia (public domain)

Edvard Munch’s “Anxiety”. Image Credit: Wikipedia (public domain)

The desire to obtain as much positive feedback and socializing through extra networks creates a loop where users will need to spend more time to get that positive reinforcement, and in turn, they neglect other aspects of their life. If that neglect has a negative impact on their life outside of these forums, they will be more likely to turn bury themselves in these online spaces for gratification, as it will be lacking elsewhere in their social lives.

Taken together, the research suggests (rather than conclusively proves) that social media is making us unhappier as a whole. As previously noted, people who might not be getting the support they need in real-life might be finding it online, and that is positively bleeding over into other aspects of their daily routine and overall mental health.

Unfortunately, the jury is also still out on that question: Whether or not real and online worlds are converging to the benefit of people who might be more distanced from the former.

So it may be cliché to say it, but a “best and worst” list of social media in 2016 would have to put “social media” itself high up in both columns.

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