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Facebook’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” Is social media actually bringing us together? As a sociologist, I took a look at the research. Here is what I found:
Social media use is correlated with depression and low well-being. Yes, this conclusion itself sounds depressing, but let’s take a look at the data. A 2016 study surveyed 1787 19-32 year old men and women, finding social media use was “was significantly associated with increased depression.” Another 2016 study found “taking a break from Facebook has positive effects on the two dimensions of well-being: our life satisfaction increases and our emotions become more positive.”
Internet use is correlated with decreased loneliness among older adults. So it’s more complicated than the above studies might suggest. According to this 2015 study looking at individuals 65 and older, “higher levels of Internet use were significant predictors of higher levels of social support, reduced loneliness, and better life satisfaction and psychological well-being among older adults.”
How you use social media makes a difference. According to another 2016 study on the correlation between Facebook and well-being, “specific uses of the site were associated with improvements in well-being.” So what made the difference? Individuals who used Facebook to build relationships with strong ties received the benefits, while those who used it for wide broadcasting did not. Therefore, they concluded that “people derive benefits from online communication, as long it comes from people they care about and has been tailored for them.” Another 2016 study found the same for Instagram: “Instagram interaction and Instagram browsing were both related to lower loneliness, whereas Instagram broadcasting was associated with higher loneliness.”
Antisocial uses of social media can be addicting. Recent neurological research used functional neuroimaging data to uncover the impact of Facebook use on the nucleus accumbens, the brains pleasure-center within the reward-circuitry. The researchers concluded that “reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicts Facebook use.” In addition, they found “gains in reputation” to be the primary reward stimulus. The brain’s mechanism for processing self-relevant gains in reputation through Facebook use mirrors the reward circuitry activated through addiction to psychotropic substances.
This reward circuitry applies to digital addictions such as Facebook through the stimulus of unexpected gains in perceived reputation when sharing a piece of content. Likes, comments, and shares are all potential sources of these unexpected gains, stimulating the nucleus accumbens, activating the dopamine response from the VTA. Over time, the nucleus accumbens adapts to the dopamine response, requiring increasing stimulation. This may come in the form of seeking more likes, comments, shares, or spending an increasing amount of time using social media technologies.
Social Media does not necessarily make us more ‘social’. It can further isolate us from family, friends, loved ones, or co-workers when abused as an addiction, spurring us to spend ever-more time constructing our carefully curated online identities, constantly seeking out more ‘likes’ to validate our self-worth. Although social media can isolate us through voyeurism and identity-construction associated with social comparison and reputational enhancement, this is not the full story. There are many non-addictive ways social media can be used.
Social media can be social when used in social ways. It can bring together international families grieving the loss of a loved one, connect soldiers in combat with their families back home, rekindle long-lost friendships, or as Facebook itself says, “help you connect and share with the people in your life.” Social media is social when used in ways that help build deeper connections between us.