Originally posted on New Honesty
A while ago I begged everyone I knew via social media to help me by participating in my master study ‘The Dark Side of Social Media’. I received an incredible response from 350+ people. To be honest, at the time I posted the study, I didn’t know what would be ‘dark’ about it. And while I personally believe that humans are very adaptable to whatever is thrown at them, I do think it is good to evaluate every new way in which we evolve. And social media is changing us at a societal level right now. While I am not here to try to find an answer to the question, if humankind benefits from social media or not, I am trying to help finding out what may change for one person.
Black Mirror – a great show about social media!
First things first, I should probably tell you that this study wasn’t only focused on social media. The other focus of this study was the fear of missing out, or FOMO. If you haven’t heard of it, FOMO is probably exactly what you think it might be. It’s an anxiety that you’re missing out on fun or cool experiences while believing that others have so much more fulfilling lives. Social media can intensify the undesirable feeling of missing out on something. But people on social media are not very honest. We all post polished pictures of carefully curated content – and NOT realistic portrayals of everyday lives. However, when we’re home alone scrolling through the Instagram feed, it’s easy to think that everyone else’s life is so much more exciting. In this moment, we don’t consider that (almost) everyone chooses the content presented carefully. And I won’t even start discussing photo editing and photo filters…
Now, what does science say about social media and how it affects us? I would simply say, science isn’t sure about social media. Social media is still a relatively new topic. There are lots of results but to be honest, we need hundreds more and big meta-analyses to come to any kind of conclusion. But let’s talk about what most studies found out so far.
The show Broad City joined the FOMO-conversation too!
While social media is meant for communication (at least it was, at some point), this is not it’s only purpose. But let’s talk about the communicational aspect first. Social media is a good outlet for people who long for more social connectedness or for shy/introverted people who want to train their social skills. More extroverted people may gain from amplification of social benefits. However, a ‘rich-get-richer’ model states that social media is only socially fulfilling for those who already have a good social support system offline. This is why some authors believe that social media usage can cause loneliness or even depressive symptomatic. At this point the association is not clear. Only thing I am sure of is that it’s possible that social media causes loneliness but it doesn’t have to.
A lot of research has gone into social media addiction. First things first, social media addiction is not a psychiatric disease according to diagnostic manuals DSM or ICD – this means it is no ‘official’ disease. On a side note, burnout is no official disease either – doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
Most authors (for only one exception I could find) are pretty sure that social media is potentially addictive. I am personally certain that it is. The results of my study, personal experiences and the literature has convinced me of it. This would mean that some people can become addicted to social media just like others become addicted to alcohol or drugs. When addicts aren’t able to ‘use’, they will be unhappy and experience negative side effects. ‘Side-effects’ of social media addiction (as described in the literature) are loss over control of time spend on social media, sleep problems, neglect of significant activities such as work, school, relationships and deterioration of academic performance.
Now, why do people love to use social media so much? It’s pretty simple actually! At their core, most social media tools use a simple reward-system. If you post a nice selfie or other quality content, you will instantly receive positive feedback via Likes or comments. Feels great, doesn’t it? We will continue using what makes us feel better (about ourselves). BUT: Ever uploaded a not-so-great-selfie and didn’t receive as much positive feedback? Did feel shitty, right? Everyone else seems to think that you’re not having the best day – damn! So, keep up the good posts and receive some nice little instant gratification for it, every time you need it.
A theory of social media and selfies
Besides the reward-system another interesting aspect is how social media works for narcissistic people. Social media is a great outlet for self-promotional behavior and a great way to strengthen your feelings of self-worth. So of course, there’s a connection between narcissism and social media activity.
Let's talk about my study now.
Intro | Disclaimer
I checked my data for response anomalies and deleted conspicuous data sets, however, I don’t know how conscientious the participants filled out my survey. The sample was a convenience sample and is therefore not representative. Calculations are correlations and therefore not causal results. I don’t want to annoy anyone with statistical/mathematical bullshit, so I will only add one value of power after each result, the effect size (small, medium, large). The effect size tells how ‘strong’ a result is. If you have any questions about the method (or the theory), simply leave a comment!
Social media activity leads to FOMO
I already mentioned that I focused on social media usage and the fear of missing out. One of my questions was if FOMO can exist without social media or if FOMO needs amplification from social media. My data shows that social media and FOMO are inseparably linked to each other (very large effect size). I’d suggest that FOMO is a symptom of constant social media activity.
Social media and smart phones affect all of us similarly
Most of the demographic comparisons weren’t significant. Women are slightly more prone to develop a social media addiction or FOMO (low effect sizes). Younger participants scored higher in FOMO than older participants (low effect size as well). A lot more interesting though is that other influences (age, education, occupation, personal status) were irrelevant for the development of social media addiction. The same goes for FOMO in connection with smart phones and social media. I suggest that this is pretty clear evidence that technical equipment and software affects all of us in a very similar way. Or: Whoever you are doesn’t matter, everyone can develop a social media addiction or FOMO under certain circumstances.
“Blitzgiving” on HIMYM, the first sitcom discussing FOMO
Who is who on social media
I didn’t find any connections between extraversion/introversion and social media activity/FOMO. The only robust connection with basic personality traits was between social media activity/FOMO and emotional instability (‘neuroticism’ – medium effect size). Who is emotional instable? Per definition, we’re talking about people who get angry or lose their peace easily and people who react negatively in stressful situations. The question now is why this trait correlates with social media usage and to be honest, I am not sure. Do you have any ideas? (Serious question)
Social media, loneliness and well-being
As mentioned earlier, I believe that FOMO is a symptom of constant social media activity. However, only FOMO – and not the social media activity – correlates positively with loneliness (rather low to medium effect size). This seems plausible to me as social media can take up a lot of time. Social media easily makes you forget other tasks or ‘real’ relationships.
I also found a negative connection with psychological well-being. If you use social media very often and score high in FOMO, you will be more likely not to feel as good psychologically (rather low effect size).
Artwork by Pierre et Gilles
Social comparison via social media leads to envious feelings
Social media makes us compare ourselves to other people subconsciously, especially on apps like Instagram. I already expected a connection with envious feelings but didn’t expect that it would be the strongest of all personality correlates (high effect size for social media activity and FOMO).
Interestingly, negative connections with feelings of self-worth reflect on the connection with narcissism. Vulnerable narcissism, a form of narcissism connected to low feelings of self-esteem, was clearly connected to both, social media activity and FOMO (medium to high effect size). While grandiose narcissists show typical self-aggrandizing behavior, vulnerable narcissists are not as confident in themselves. Social media is a perfect way to deal with a low self-esteem. If you post nice pictures or other content, you will receive positive feedback via Likes and comments. I already wrote about the reward system fueling most social media tools.
Talking about rewards, I also suggested that high social media activity makes people get used to instant gratifications while bigger goals are being neglected. Social media uses instant gratifications (e.g. Likes), a kind of positive feedback you will receive following every posting. We will keep using things that work well for us. My data strengthened the assumption that people using social media frequently prefer instant gratifications over delayed gratifications/long-term objectives (medium effect size).
Black Mirror’s episode ‘Nosedive’.
Did we lose our thirst for adventure?
To keep this last part short, I expected that FOMO includes a thirst for adventure and a lust for life (‘Sensation Seeking’). I thought it’d be plausible that people who fear missing out on something want to have a lot of satisfying experiences. However, I didn’t find any connections between social media activity/FOMO and sensation seeking! Therefore, I suggest FOMO doesn’t mean that you’re scared of missing out on life but that you rather wouldn’t want to experience less than your friends present on their social media accounts. I guess, we’re talking about social comparison and envy again.
In fact, my data suggests that people using social media constantly are rather afraid of taking risks because of possible negative consequences (medium to high effect size). Could it be that the digital generation became ‘too’ careful? I can still remember my mum saying that I shouldn’t post stuff on MySpace because it was going to haunt me later in life. I might lose a future job just by being myself. Did the fear of living transparently made us clean up our acts? And why are we scared that a risk doesn’t pay off? Is it more comfortable not taking any risks at all? Or why else is social media activity/FOMO connected with behavioral inhibition due to fear of negative consequences?
These were my most important results in a very short summary. The final thesis however will cover a lot more than presented here. I was really surprised by some results, and I hope that science continues evaluating social media. I hope you understood, what I was talking about because I had a hard time compressing a lot of information in a short text.
Please don’t forget that these are only the results of one study and another study might come to a different conclusion. However, if you every decide to distance yourself a little bit from social media, my tip would be to set your phone on airplane mode before going to sleep and not laying your phone near the bed. Enjoy the rest!