Social Media - The Silent Epidemic.

Social media effects

by Abbey Miles
Actor | Film enthusiast | Writer

The conversation about social media, and the effect it has on our social lives, and on our collective mental health, has been going on for years, coming to a head in 2017 when Facebook itself – as the biggest social media platform in the world, used by more than a billion people worldwide – released an article on the platform titled 'Hard Questions: Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us'.

In the article, Facebook referenced studies indicating a correlation between teen depression and technology use, but brushed these claims off, stating that the research ignored the benefits of social media, which are gained when users use Facebook to message their friends, interact with loved ones’ posts, and receive interaction from friends on their content, in turn.

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On the other hand, the article admits that when users passively scroll through their timelines – a wallflower, looking through content which provides them with no social benefit – this is when social media can become damaging and time-wasting, and Facebook conducted a study which supports these conclusions.

Facebook’s summary of these results: it’s how the user chooses to use social media platforms that determine if they benefit from social media, or if these platforms become detrimental to their life.

The impudence of this statement is unbelievable, considering that social media platforms – with Facebook at the forefront, setting the trends for sites such as Instagram and YouTube – specifically design their platforms, and implement algorithms, to keep users scrolling on their sites.

Social media platforms – and video platforms such as YouTube and TikTok, profit from keeping its users on the site for as long as possible, in order to show them as many ads as they can. The winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics – Sima He – describes this phenomenon as 'attention economy', as advertisers literally pay for the attention of the users of these platforms.

From a business standpoint then, it makes sense that social media platforms would do whatever they can to make users stay on the site, such as ensuring that users don't have to click – and, therefore, think – in order to scroll endlessly down the site page. This endless scrolling mechanism provides an infinite amount of content for users to browse, so that hours can go by before we stop to think: why am I doing this? What good is this doing for me?

From a human standpoint, on the other hand, it's – frankly – immoral, and many of the individuals originally involved with Facebook’s rise to prevalent have turned on the platform for this reason, followed by a number of others from other platforms.

But why are social media platforms so addictive, and why do we feel the need to endlessly look through social media in the first place?

In one word: dopamine.

A hormone associated with our feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and reward, dopamine is delivered to our brains when we complete an action that we expect to get some sort of reward from – and then we get that reward, or our expectations of that reward are exceeded, our neural pathways are flooded with dopamine.

In the case of the social media platform, when we open up these sites from our smartphones, laptops or other smart devices, expecting to see notifications or messages that will stimulate the release of dopamine (which we get from positive real-life social interactions) and that need is fulfilled, we experience the benefits of dopamine. If there aren’t, we usually scroll through the platform until we see something that does fulfil our dopamine need.

Moreover, on our Facebook timelines, Instagram feeds and YouTube recommended pages, we are presented with posts, pictures and videos which stimulate the pleasure centres in our brains. Consequently, when we stop scrolling, watching and reading, we suffer from a dip in our dopamine levels, causing social media users to seek the next hormone reward, and we continue to scroll, click and watch.

It sounds insane, that we – as a society – could become so addicted to social media content to such a great extent, but disturbingly it is the most popular addiction globally, echoing the effects of cigarettes and alcohol on the brain, which similarly stimulate the release of dopamine in the body.

Of course, we get dopamine from other sources too – such as in in-person social interactions, eating delicious food, exercising, or even doing well on an assignment or being praised at work – but the crucial difference is that these things take effort, and in order to achieve the dopamine release that we crave, we have to put work in.

When it comes to social media, all we have to do is click, scroll and watch. This is why many social media users choose – or are influenced – to consume hours of content, instead of getting on with tasks or activities that will actually make a difference to their lives.

Social media users get stuck in a so-called ‘dopamine loop’, where each piece of content consumed results in a peak, and then a dip, in dopamine levels, causing the user to continually seek and replace the level of this hormone in their brain.

The comparative ease with which people can get these short dopamine hits makes the prospect of putting in significant effort for a dopamine hit seem less appealing, and this is the root of many people’s social media procrastination.

In addition to this, despite the fact that we receive dopamine hits as if we’re experiencing in-person social interaction, ironically, it is impinging on our ability to carry out positive, functional social situations in real life.

People of every generation struggle not to reach for their phone each time it buzzes, with the sound of the latest notification or message, even if it’s inappropriate for the situation; everyone has had a date where the person opposite them can’t stop checking their phone, even if they’re deep in conversation.

Moreover, research has indicated that teens growing up in the age of social media will struggle to read social cues and communicate effectively, since they’re so used to communicating through the gauze of social media, allowing them to spend minutes – or even hours – on cultivating replies to their friends and romantic interests.

More than this, during face-to-face, real-life, social interactions, teens (and older generations, too) are still glued to their phones, taking the easy, passive hit of dopamine over the more meaningful social interactions that life has to offer. Social scientists attribute this – in part – to the ‘FOMO’ effect – the fear of missing out on an online interaction that they perceive to be crucial to their social wellbeing.

Another significant problem with social media – aside from chemical addiction and our need to be near our phones or smart devices 24/7 – is that they dont reflect real life. We see the best parts of people's lives as they choose to present them on the internet, forcing us to compare these images with our own authentic life experience, much to our own detriment. This is especially damaging in terms of body image.

Propagated by the popularity of photo-sharing social media platforms such as Instagram, people are often forced to compare themselves with the individuals they see on their Instagram feed – and even if they’re not consciously following people who post fitness and beauty related content, it will likely show up on their ads, or on their ‘explore’ feed.

A major problem with this is that the photos we see don’t tell the whole story – for models, influencers and celebrities, part of their job is to look a certain way, and a lot of the time this isn’t achieved simply through eating well and going to the gym. Behind each perfect photo – which often uses a person’s physical appeal to sell products to their audience – is one-hundred other rejected pictures, lighting changes, posing, breathing in, and a lot of time these photos are edited, airbrushing over the imperfections that all human beings have, no matter what these Instagram posts would have us believe.

This is even more problematic when we consider that the products sold often target the insecurities of these influencers’ followers, which are exacerbated after comparing their appearances with those of their favourite influencers. Instagram influencers sell self-consciousness, and make a profit out of their followers’ vulnerabilities, and they’re often not even aware that they’re doing so.

Similarly, a recent study by the National Eating Disorder Association showed that there was a correlation between having Instagram, and having more body image concerns, and this was especially prevalent in those who followed lifestyle and fitness influencers. A similar study showed a correlation between eating disorder symptoms and Instagram usage.

The images we see on social media are unrealistic for many – whether that’s in regard to body image, lifestyle, or anything else – and they can lead to low self-esteem, depressive episodes and an increased sense of dissatisfaction with life, if our own lives don’t live up to the virtual lives we spectate from the other side of the computer.

While social media has provided us with a way to stay connected with people from all over the world, arguably we’re more disconnected than ever. In order to shift the way that we socialize back onto the right track, we need to embrace real human connection, and find a way to break our habits, so that we can find pleasure and satisfaction in real life, not in the virtual one.

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