Psychology Sociology

How “Social” is Social Media?

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...
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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.

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  1. Great article. I agree social media can completely isolate people when used in a way that keeps you away from people, rather than engaging. For myself it has been helpful. I am more in touch with friends. I also talk with others with health issues in common with me. When you can find people that you can connect with in a way that is not possible with others in person, social media is the best thing around.

  2. This was a very well-written and informative article! I particularly agree with the point on the way you use social media making a difference. We’re similarly promoting awareness of the dangers of social media addiction and ways to use social media in a more ‘social’ manner. For instance, it’s important to be critically reflective and actually engage with content online. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through your feed, it can be beneficial to voice your thoughts and opinions, enter into insightful discussions with people or even do something as simple as a ‘like’ or ‘share’ of an article. We recently just made a post on how to harness the benefits of social media if you’re interested!

  3. I partly agree, especially isolation idea. Loneliness is a bad gift Internet brings. It is usual that people on subway, starbucks keep their smart phones on hand on the time, rather than chat with people around. I appreciate the difference idea too. Sometimes it depends on the purposes or ways people use social media.

  4. That’s an interesting finding about the correlation of decreased loneliness with internet use among older adults. It would be interesting to think about whether older adults were less lonely because they used the internet or if learning internet skills provided them with greater independence and support. The truly social aspect of social media feels like it has been lost to the addictive nature of the site. There should be a focus in maintaining the healthy social aspect of this and younger people helping older adults to access this would be a positive thing – developing social media skills to actually communicate and connect with people should be an important goal for all of society. IE.

  5. Thanks for the great article Steve! What particularly stood out to me was when you mentioned that social media can be addicting. A lot of people do not realise their reliance on social media as it is a new concept. Sometimes, I notice people scrolling down their feed purely just out of habit. All this time on social media has led people to be dependent on immediate responses, instant gratification and constant notification. When this dependency is not satisfied, it could lead to consequences such as low self esteem and potentially even anxiety. I think it’s really important to consider the negative pressure of social media addiction. I’m currently campaigning for social health with a specific focus on pressures from social media. Feel free to check out my page!

  6. I agree on the increasing negativity and depression that social media is spreading among people. Personally, I am not a fan of social media at all and I seldom use it, even that on insisting of my dear ones for fun sakes. But it is true that we all need to get a break from social media and get our lives straight to have real socializing and enjoyment of events.
    Thanks for sharing great information and healthy perspective!

  7. Dear Steve you are absolutely right. But strange thing is that in today’s lives of people have feeling that they are inferior, if they are not in any of the social media platforms .

  8. It is interesting how many people choose to “give up” social media, especially facebook for a certain about of time. It also interests me that we feel when we do this we need to declare it to the world, as if our absence won’t be noticed if we don’t. So, sometimes, even in having a break, we are still concerned in what others are thinking of us! And that for me, is a crucial part. From my view, I see that people who use social media to share things with care about is good, but if we are doing it to people please or receive validation then it can become dangerous. And it is a very thin line to cross! Just like in any situation, worrying or thinking too much about what OTHER people are thinking, makes our own selves shrink into a hole, instead of celebrating ourselves for who we are. Anyway, just my thoughts… thanks for writing the post!

  9. I wasn’t aware of the 2016 study, so this is really helpful. Now I can have some evidence when arguing about the negative aspects of social media (not forgetting, of course, about their positive side). Great article overall!

  10. Such an interesting article. It’s quite intuitive that social media can be used both in a good or in a bad ways (with this I mean in a way that may bring you well-being or illness), but it’s very interesting to see that there is a scietific match up.
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Interesting insight and poll results.

    I believe I fall in line with the trends – I enjoy FB and social networking when interacting with family and close friends. Not so much when promoting as an author. 😉

    Looking forward to reading your book. Thanks.

    1. Thanks! I agree with you on the difference between sharing and promotion. I’m curious if you got a chance to read it yet. I’d like to hear your thoughts. Also, thanks for the reblog.

  12. This is a very interesting read. I’ve suspected as much, but hadn’t seen these studies. In my own life, I do see Facebook as addictive and a negative influence. I find, when I focus my usage more on finding interesting/thought provoking articles/stories/quotes, I feel actually more connected and happy then reading posts. I think, it’s natural to compare yourself to others – comparison gives definition (can’t know it’s light if you don’t know dark) but, it becomes bad when you use others to define yourself. I downloaded your book – thank you! I look forward to reading it. I’m in the middle of reading a collection of Alan Watts’ essays right now, and I was just wondering what he would say about all of this.

    1. Thank you for sharing your personal experience with this phenomenon. Also, I really like Alan Watts! Curious to get your feedback on my book once you’ve finished it.

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