Take a sheet of paper. Crumple it up. Now try to smooth it back out again. The wrinkles won’t ever completely come out, will they?
Think of this as a metaphor for information people post about themselves on social networking sites; once it’s there, it’s very hard, if not impossible, to remove.
Social media has the potential ability to profoundly impact our relationships, communication, self-esteem, privacy, careers, governments, and beliefs. With over 200 mobile and computer avenues to connect or disconnect us, engage or distract us, depending on your views, it is a shift worth focusing onbut perhaps not for 9 hours a day, as some reportedly do!
This course will explore the various social media websites and mobile applications. We will identify the trends and statistics. We will delve into the behavioral and emotional pulls that entice users to begin and continue with these activities. We will explore both the positive and negative impacts of social media on mental health.
As Martin Baily, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, has stated,
“Powerful new technologies provide great benefits, but they also change the way we live, and not always in ways that everyone likes. An example is the spread of air conditioning, which makes us more comfortable, but those who grew up before its invention speak fondly of a time when everyone sat on the front porch and talked to their neighbors rather than going indoors to stay cool and watch TV. The declining cost of information processing and communication represents a powerful new technology, with social networking as the most recent service to be provided at modest cost. It can be expected to bring pluses and minuses…
Social Media Websites
In this section of the course we will be looking at many of the most popular social media websites, how they are structured and what entices individuals to sign up and keep coming back.
We define social network sites for the purposes of this course as web-based services that allow individuals to:
(1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system,
(2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and
(3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system. The nature and nomenclature of these connections may vary from site to site
What makes most social network sites unique is not that they allow individuals to meet strangers, as a dating site or a chat room would do, but rather that they enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks. This can result in connections between individuals that would not otherwise be made, but who share some offline connection. In other words, the main goal is not to make friends, but to connect with those that you already have some type of connection to. This can have a profound, both positive and negative impact on how one views their social status and in turn their self esteem. We will look at this further later on.
While social network sites have implemented a wide variety of technical features, their backbone consists of visible profiles that display an articulated list of friends who are also users of the system. Profiles are unique pages where one can “type oneself into being”. There companies that will even produce a virtual girlfriend or boyfriend to enhance your relationship status with none of your real friends being the wiser that this significant other is just a creation. The user creates the image they want to project of themselves with a varying degree of accuracy. The questions to explore from a mental health standpoint is does this boost the individuals self worth because they are putting their best foot forward or does it chip away at it because they feel inadequate even in their own eyes.
The visibility of a profile varies by site and according to user discretion. By default, profiles on Friendster and Tribe.net are crawled by search engines, making them visible to anyone, regardless of whether or not the viewer has an account. Alternatively, LinkedIn controls what a viewer may see based on whether she or he has a paid account. Sites like MySpace allow users to choose whether they want their profile to be public or “Friends only.” Facebook takes a different approach by default, users who are part of the same “network” can view each other’s profiles, unless a profile owner has decided to deny permission to those in their network. Structural variations around visibility and access are one of the primary ways that social network sites differentiate themselves from each other.
After joining a social network site, users are prompted to identify others in the system with which they have a relationship. The label for these relationships differs depending on the site popular terms include “Friends,” “Contacts,” and “Fans.” Each of these titles carries a different way we view our circle. Most social network sites require bi-directional confirmation for friendship, but some do not. In other words, at some sites a user has to extend the friendship connection and it must be accepted while on others it does not have to be accepted. These one-directional ties are sometimes labeled as “Fans” or “Followers,” but many sites call these Friends, as well. The term “friends” can be misleading, because the connection does not necessarily mean friendship in the everyday vernacular sense, and the reasons people connect are varied.
The public display of connections is a crucial component of social networking sites. The Friends List contains links to each friend’s profile, enabling viewers to traverse the network graph by clicking through the Friends List. On most sites, the list of friends is visible to anyone who is permitted to view the profile, although there are exceptions. For instance, some MySpace users have hacked their profiles to hide the friends display, and LinkedIn allows users to opt out of displaying their network. Some internally, if not verbally, compete with others regarding how many friends they have compared to others. I have 495 friends. Oh, well I have 525!
Beyond profiles, friends, comments, and private messaging, social networking sites vary greatly in their features and user base. Some have photo-sharing or video-sharing capabilities; others have built-in blogging and instant messaging technology. These capabilities are super when the content is positive. These capabilities are devastating when the content is unfavorable. I had a neighbor; well call her Susan, in a dispute with someone unknown to our neighborhood. The individual was so upset with Susan that they transposed (or don’t really know) her head on the body of a woman stripping in a club. The individual then took the time to distribute this picture to the entire neighborhood windshield by windshield. This was devastating to Susan, of course! Over thirty people saw this picture. Now compound that with how fast someone can text or post to those 525 friends a compromising, unflattering or altered picture and it doesn’t take long to see the potential damage.
Many potential employers and colleges are regularly pulling up Face book profiles for candidates. Everything out there becomes an individuals name tag with 100 times the information on it.
Many social networking sites target people from specific geographical regions or linguistic groups. Some sites are designed with specific ethnic, religious, sexual orientation, political, or other identity-driven categories in mind. There are even social networking sites for dogs (Dogster) and cats (Catster), although their owners must manage their profiles.
Mental Health Aspects of Social Networking
So do all those friends and/or fans mean I am well liked?!
Anything that we do regularly affects our mental health in some way. Exercising, the foods we eat and how we spend our time all contribute to the state of our mental health. Some activities, such as social networking, as we have already seen, can have both negative and positive impacts depending on a variety of factors.
Most people easily recognize the positives of social networking: the ability to connect with people even when you’re in an isolated situation, staying in touch with friends and family who are far away and having the flexibility to communicate when time allows. The negatives are often more difficult to recognize until were suffering or notice someone else suffering from them.
In a 2008 study from the University of Leeds in the U.K., the most vulnerable age group for social networking issues is young people with the average age around 21. It may very well be that the age would be younger if the same study were completed today due to that fact that in the past four years the age of social Internet users has become younger and includes a growing number of children. The greatest concern for young people whom use social networking is bullying and depression.
As young people, particularly teens, are more prone to depression, theyre also more sensitive about social issues and often easily injured emotionally. Young people are often more desperate for friendship and make poor choices as a result. Ironically, younger people tend to be less sensitive about other peoples feelings and they are more likely to be unkind, as they often don’t see the bigger picture of the damage they’re inflicting.
In the news there have also been several stories of adults, with more experience and less socially on the line, acting either anonymously or as a fictitious person harassing and abusing young adults. Sometimes the harassment is due to a perceived slight to one of their own children.
While young people are more likely to suffer mental health issues from social networking, anyone of any age may be affected negatively, particularly those adults who are prone to addictive behavior. Everyone should understand the signs of an unhealthy social networking situation and watch for the following signs:
Focusing problems easily distracted and loss of ability to concentrate.
Lack of concern about one-on-one relationships prioritizing social networking over face-to-face family and friend relationships.
Lessening communication skills talking less, difficulty articulating thoughts into words, inattentive when others are speaking.
Unconcerned about obligations in the real world more interested in checking status updates and communicating on the internet than participating in activities off of the computer.
Withdrawal symptoms (agitation, fidgeting, aggressiveness, etc) when unable to participate in social networking for a period of time.
Potential harm during applications/entry to college because of postings
Does this mean that we should all stop social networking? Not necessarily, but it does mean that like everything else, moderation offers the healthiest alternative. Time limits on social networking, incorporating plenty of non-computer activities, interaction with people in person and watching out for the unhealthy signs can help computer users keep online relationships in check for a healthier life.
Also, parental access to accounts and talking about what is occurring on these sites can help bridge communication about possibly issues.
Children and young adults are not alone in the mentioned dangers. Internet addiction is most definitely on the rise amongst adults. Families are being affected by parents who come home from work and connect to their computers rather than to their loved ones. The virtual life cannot become more important than the real lives people lead. Many will say their real life is much more important, but show me how you spend your time and money and I will show you your priorities.
Social networking sites help people connect to others with similar interests, keep in touch with friends and families and project an image, they want everyone to see and hear. It is a way of being relevant to the world at large. Through these connections we gain identity, connections and community.
Social networking sites are dynamic, heterarchical, horizontal, informal and spontaneous. Basically, they showcase our humanness. Individuals are given a voice about what is happening in our world, whether it is about Spring Break vacation plans, the next political election or their child’s big score in the game last night. It serves as a conversation.
People keep coming back to stay up to date and in the know. It is positively reinforcing to put something out there and get a response. Someone cares about the information. Someone agrees, disagrees, likes, comments or some way interacts. Again, this reinforces the feeling of relevancy.
How Does Screen Time Effect Face To Face Time?
If you go out to dinner tonight and peruse the restaurant you will find many of the families in the restaurant are socializing, but not always with each other. Everyone, from the children to the grandparents, will be nose deep in an electronic device.
As some might be updating Face book, tweeting, checking email or playing a game one thing that is not happening is conversation.
Social media has drastically changed how and how much we communicate. Some communicate much more effectively than ever before because the ease of posting a message and hitting the entire family and social circle is much easier than making 25 phone calls. Some however, as in the example of the family at dinner, are communicating face to face less and less.
Not too long ago, we communicated through the mail, on a landline telephone, and in person. Today, we send text messages; leave voice
messages; use instant messenger; send emails; talk through headphones, cell phones, and online videophones; and, yes interact through social networking sites.
When all this was new and people chatted in chat rooms, they were communicating with mostly strangers and people in which they had never met. The change occurred when websites focused on connecting people with whom they already knew. Websites such as Face book gave people the sense of interpersonal communication that some had been lacking. They could stay social with their friends and relatives through the use of their computers.
With all of the ease of this new communication shouldn’t everything be getting better? Well, while posting to a social networking site or text messaging is the easiest way to say something short without having to say it in conversation, the lacking of human interaction is becoming more apparent. Studies suggest that younger generations are finding a decrease in quality of interpersonal communication.
We are losing the personal touch as it relates to human interaction. The written/texted word lacks emotion and therefore can often be misinterpreted. Text messages resort to acronyms to avoid losing precious space in the limited character box. Everyone is losing the personal touch that they use to get when having a face-to-face conversation.
Successfully maneuvering through life requires attaining a set of skills, for example the ability to communicate with others and work through conflicts. These social skills are taught through modeling and experience. With an overwhelming trend among adolescents and young adults toward the reliance on technology for communication, it is speculated that the decline of face-to-face interaction will result in decreased ability to handle real-life conflicts. Many wont have the necessary skills to resolve conflict without the time delay the electronic medium affords them.
Social media is an enormously popular way to interact. This interaction, as noted can have benefits and drawbacks. Some professionals believe that social networking, with its ability to create and project the ideal you, could actually be a self-esteem boost. Other studies have found that people with already lower self-esteem tend to spend more time on these types of sites than people who are more confident. This can have a negative affect on their already vulnerable self-image because sites only showcase certain aspects of other people’s lives, and it tends to be the positive aspects. This creates an unrealistic comparison.
Lets take a look at a small sample of the research being done.
Amanda Forest, a graduate student in the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, has been studying how people use the site Face book.
We thought people with low self-esteem may find Face book a more appealing place to connect with people because they dont have to have that awkwardness of in-person interaction, she says.
But, what we found was people with low self-esteem tend to express a lot of negative emotion and not so much positive emotion. The reactions they got werent so great. People with low self-esteem were liked less.
A University of Haifa study found that the more time teen girls spend on Face book, the more likely they are to develop an eating disorder, both due to the self-comparisons against their peers and exposure to pop culture.
Both male and female teens may experience depression due to cyber bullying and feeling left out of larger social interactions, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Some college students, on the other hand, may benefit from social media. A Cornell University study found that social networking sites can have a positive influence on college students self esteem, though this may be because, as noted earlier, users can shape their image and social interactions on the platform then they tend to reflect that image. Fake it til you make it. Besides, if its on the Internet, it must be true, right?
A University of Houston study found a correlation between those who frequently use Face book and those who suffer from depressionnotably, younger men tended to compare themselves to others, which added to their negative self esteem.
Comparison is the enemy to contentment. Each of these studies reporting negative effects continues to point to comparison. How do I measure up? Is my high school boyfriend better off than me? In some cases it is the comparison to the image someone puts up not necessarily being congruent with the internal picture they have of themselves, their accomplishments and their lives.
According to psychologist Mudra India Mukesh, it goes both ways. An individual will get a flood of endorphins when they add new friends to their list, but seeing their happy updates may cause them to feel depressed.
A York University study found those who have either narcissism or lower self-esteem tend to engage in more social networking activity.
According to a study that appeared in Psychological Science, those with low self esteem and a negative world outlook may actually alienate themselves even further by posting negative content that annoys or exhausts their social media contacts.
However, those who do have a healthy self-perception but are simply shy or have low social skills may feel more connectedness when using social media, according to a Carnegie Mellon study.
Relationships can be maintained through distance and all of lifes busyness and also can be threatened by new social avenues to meet and triangulate established relationships.
Though there is no definitive consensus on the scale tipping to the benefit or harm of social media. There are certain behaviors that tend to trigger feelings of inadequacy, such as constantly comparing oneself to others. These need to be kept in check. Also, maintaining the commitments made to real time family and friends needs to be balanced with the virtual world.
Prevalence, Make Peace Because It Is A Tidal Wave
In 2012 the average US internet users spends 32 hours online every month. Every month the online population spends equivalent to 4 million years online. On average, a global internet user spends 16 hours online every month (vs 32 hours for USA).
In one day on the Internet:
- 294 billion emails are sent
- 2 million blog posts are written (enough posts to fill TIME magazine for 770 million years)
- 172 million people visit Facebook
- 40 million visit Twitter
- 22 million visit LinkedIn
- 20 million visit Google+
- 17 million visit Pinterest
- 4.7 billion minutes are spent on Facebook
- 532 million statuses are updated
- 250 million photos are uploaded
- 864,000 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube
- More iPhones are sold than people are born
Our Brains Online
Psychiatrists, authors and scientists have recently gotten very interested in the effect of the Internet and social networking on our brains. They have raised questions about whether the fast pace and indirect social contact of online life may change our real-life, real time social skills, ability to focus, and our multitasking skills.
The most likely cognitive effects of social media are on our attentional skills our ability to concentrate and focus on a task.
Some scientists have observed that our bodies are wired to respond to interruptions. We get a shot of adrenaline when we must respond to a change in our situation.
Interruptions become like a welcomed friend for our increasingly unfocused brains, to the point where we can become distracted even thinking about the possibility of an interruption. This constant distraction could also affect our ability to perform more demanding intellectual tasks like inferential and deductive reasoning or critical analysis.
For some this interruption of checking the news feed on Face book provides a lifeline to the world outside our cubicle. For others, it interferes with us completing tasks. The effect is largely tide to the frequency of distraction.
Many researchers have found the correlation of online gaming, with a very strong social connections, anxiety producing. The brain reacts to the stimulus as it would a real life situation.
Social Networking Addiction
Social networking addiction is a phrase sometimes used to refer to someone spending too much time using Face book, Twitter and other forms of social media — so much so that it interferes with other aspects of daily life.
There’s no official medical recognition of social networking addiction as a disease or disorder. Still, the cluster of behaviors associated with heavy or excessive use of social media has become the subject of much discussion and research.
Addiction usually refers to compulsive behavior that leads to negative effects. In most addictions, people feel compelled to do certain activities so often that they become a harmful habit, which then interferes with other important activities such as work or school.
In that context, a social networking addict could be considered someone with a compulsion to use social media to excess–constantly checking Face book status updates or “stalking” people’s profiles on Face book, for example, for hours on end. But it’s hard to tell when fondness for an activity becomes a dependency and crosses the line into a damaging habit or addiction.
Researchers at Chicago University concluded that social media addiction can be stronger than addiction to cigarettes and booze following an experiment in which they recorded the cravings of several hundred people for several weeks. Media cravings ranked ahead of cravings for cigarettes and alcohol.
And at Harvard University, researchers actually hooked people up to functional MRI machines to scan their brains and see what happens when they talk about themselves, which is a key part of what people do in social media. They found that self-disclosure communication stimulates the brain’s pleasure centers much like sex and food do.
Plenty of clinicians have observed symptoms of anxiety, depression and some psychological disorders in people who spend too much time online, but little hard evidence has been found proving that social media or Internet use caused the symptoms. There’s a similar lack of data about social networking addiction.
Tips that can benefit someone overusing social media:
1. Acknowledge that being social by itself is not going to improve your social life. Yes, you must engage as a real human being.
2. Use time blocks. If you struggle with controlling your time enjoyed (or wasted) on social media then set time blocks for engaging, writing blog posts and other tactics.
4. Dont spend too much time comparing yourself to others. If you spend all your time comparing yourself to others, youll miss the point of engaging with people who want to speak to, hear from and learn from you.
5. Dont forget the in real life (IRL) friends, family and community. Dont forget about the people in your life who you see, touch, walk by, meet or live life with you every day. They need your dedicated time, attention and focus too.
6. Remember that social media IS real life. Even though there are some people that still profile behind double personalities, the truth is most people are honest. There is only one you so be that person. The more you can be you, the better you are going to connect with others who are also being them.
No good will come from a world where we expect more from technology and less from each other. There are benefits and disadvantages to the world of social networking. Social media is not always time wasted. Many times in can bridge relationships, provide entertainment and help individuals to become the image they project of who they want to be. If not kept in balance though, or for the wrong person, social networking can reinforce feelings of inadequacy.
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