image by Clem Ono
It’s estimated that we touch our smartphones 2,617 times a day. Any way you look at it, it’s quite a lot. The numbers illustrate just how integral mobile devices have become in our lives, and how much we simply love to use them.
At the heart of this love affair is the undisputed King (or Queen) of the modern smartphone – social media. Most of us can probably attest to using it regularly, chatting to friends or staying connected to our social circles, wherever in the world they may be. While it can never truly replicate the warmth of real human contact, there are unbridled positives and huge advantages of using social media.
However as with most things that we use “a little too much”, there is a downside. A growing body of research is suggesting that those who spend too much time on social media actually increase their chances of experiencing negative mental health outcomes.
Too much of a good thing
In a report published by the Royal Society for Public Health called “Status of Mind”, they found that Social Media is linked with increased rates of anxiety, depression and poor sleep.
Supporting data from the NHS shows that over the last 10 years, there’s been a 68% increase in hospital admissions as a result of self-harm among girls under the age of 17.
Rates of stress, anxiety and depression are up, and young people in particular are experiencing a variety of mental health issues linked to online conflict, and fears about body image and bullying. While social media isn’t solely responsible for the complexity of these issues, they can be exacerbated through its use.
Our psychological motivations for using social media can also play an important role. I’m sure that at one time or another, many of us have used social media in order to feel a little bit better about ourselves. The positive affirmation that we receive when someone likes or shares a post can be captivating.
There is certainly an allure in receiving these virtual hugs, the instant gratification that our friends and family “like” something we’ve posted psychologically elevates our own status and feelings of self worth. But at what point does this desire to be “liked” give way to addiction, and more importantly is there anything we can do about it?
Social media and addiction
Researchers at UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center have shed some light on what happens to our brains when we use social media, and the possible explanation as to why is can be addictive.
Using an MRI scanner to image the brains of 32 teenagers as they used a social media app, the team found certain regions became activated by "likes", particularly the brain's reward centre. When a teenager receives a lot of “likes” their brains actually respond in a similar way as if they were winning money.
The areas of the brain that showed increased activity are the same neurological pathways that are linked with gambling and drug use. The same motivations that compel us all to seek warmth, food, comfort, heat, and sex, are the same pleasure-seeking behaviours that we can receive from using social media. It could explain, at least in part, why teenagers are such avid social media users.
Of course not everyone who uses social media will be adversely affected, but just as gambling or alcohol addiction can be very difficult to overcome, the same applies to the use of social media. The challenge is what to do about it? Are we solely responsible for policing our own behaviour, or is there a responsibility from those who develop social media platforms?
Keeping your attention
Sean Parker, Facebook’s first president, has admitted in a recent interview that the primary goal of Facebook was to figure out how they can consume as much of your time and attention as possible.
Labelled the “attention economy”, almost every facet of social media is designed to get you to stay engaged. Getting a share, liking a post, smiley faces, all are designed to influence behaviour, offering some form of reward while at the same time creating a craving for more.
That’s not to say that all aspects of social media are designed in an evil lair. It’s probably fair to say that most tech companies never deliberately set out to make their products addictive. They’re simply responding to the incentives of an advertising economy, experimenting with techniques in order to capture people’s attention. Many design features are simply good ideas that help the spirit of entrepreneurship, but there’s a fine line between persuasive design features that help to reinforce usage, and coercion.
Subtle psychological tricks that exploit negative emotions in order to act as “triggers” are one such concern. Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness can all be recorded as data. Receiving “likes’ that are automatically sent when you’re feeling a bit low, can prompt an almost instantaneous desire to use social media again in order to stop any negative sensations.
There is also a growing concern that social media is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus. One possible explanation is that frequent use of social media results in multitasking, frequently switching between whatever it is you’re doing, in order to text, share, comment or engage – ultimately adding to feelings of stress and anxiety.
Striking a balance
The answer to all of this isn’t easy. People will always use social media, but the unfortunate irony is that platforms that were built to bring us closer together may be moving us further apart, and for heavy users it could be damaging mental health.
In response, a growing number of Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who initially helped make the technology are disconnecting themselves from the Internet - acutely aware of the potential pitfalls, and it’s good advice. Even if it’s just for a few hours every day, it’s undoubtedly important to strike a balance between the on and offline world.
And while not all social media use warrants the label of addiction, it’s likely that most of us will benefit from resisting the impulse to check a message notification every now and again. The world wont fall apart, and we may then discover that we reconnect with people in the real world, which is ultimately more meaningful, joyous and good for us.
Heather Mason is the founder of The Minded Institute - a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy, mindfulness, and a 200 hour yoga teacher training course.