Today, we are more interconnected than at any other time in history. Social networking sites have a big share in this connectedness. According to a global report, as of 2019, there are approximately 4.3 billion internet users around the world, and about 3.4 billion of those are active social media users. Not only have these numbers been growing steadily since 2012, but also the usage base has shifted dramatically from PCs to mobile devices. This explains the people we see walking around immersed in their smartphones.
The problem with social network sites
Social network sites (SNSs; this is the term researchers use to refer to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.) have certainly revolutionized the way we live our lives. Their psychological benefits mainly come from increased social contact, self-esteem, and social capital. However, such prevalent use of social network sites has not gone unquestioned over the years. For example, in many studies Facebook use is associated with loneliness and depression, and sometimes with decreased self-esteem. Similarly, Instagram use has been associated withdeteriorated well-being over time and depressive symptoms. In some countries, Instagram is even experimenting with hiding the number of likes a photo receives, in the hope that it can reduce users’ “obsession about the number of likes”.
How to protect ourselves from the detrimental effects of social media use?
Perhaps the key is how NOT to use social media. There are many ways of using social media that increase our chances of being adversely affected. Firstly, a studyconducted in 2015 revealed that following more strangers on Instagram might reinforce negative feelings about oneself by the means of negative social comparisons. My speculation here would be that when you see someone looking happy and having a great life on an Instagram post, if you know this person in real life the illusion of constant happiness will diminish, since you also witness that person’s less than happy times. When it comes to strangers (particularly celebrities), we do not have a point of reference to assess whether the positive image is fake or real, so we might make more negative social comparisons with them. That is, we may be more inclined to think they are all happy and having a great life and we are not. Therefore, it is important to follow a balanced ratio of strangers to friends/family.
Secondly, research has shown that “passive use” of social media (specifically Facebook) may have negative implications for our affective well-being. In the use of social network sites we can distinguish between active and passive use. Active use means the activities for direct exchanges with others (e.g., posting, uploading or commenting) while passive use refers to consuming information without direct exchanges (e.g., scrolling through feeds, watching videos, or reading posts). The detrimental effect of passive use on well-being is explained by envy. That is, if people only consume information on social network sites, they are more likely to feel envious since they are themselves not sharing or posting about similar activities. One of the interesting findings of the research was that passive Facebook use significantly affected subjective well-being even when researchers controlled for active use. In other words, even using Facebook with a balanced active-passive ratio may not protect from the detrimental effects. Therefore, I would suggest, if you use social network sites at all, that you make sure to use them actively (i.e. posting, uploading, commenting).
Lastly, the addictive value of social media has recently been established in the literature, with the coining of the term “online social network site addiction”. Although not a formally recognized diagnosis, it is defined as “being overly concerned about SNSs, to be driven by a strong motivation to log on to or use SNSs, and to devote so much time and effort to SNSs that it impairs other social activities, studies/job, interpersonal relationships, and/or psychological health and well-being” by Andreassen and Pallesen. Since some research has been carried out into the neurobiology of behavioural addictions, the authors argue that SNS addiction is no different than internet gaming disorder orgambling disorder. My personal advice would be that if you notice (or someone else tells you) that you are overly concerned about SNSs, driven by a strong motivation to log on to or use SNSs and devote a great deal of time and effort to SNSs in general, it is probably a good idea to try to limit your use of such sites/apps. Then see if you have any withdrawal symptoms (such as becoming stressed, restless, or irritable, and feeling bad if you cannot access SNSs). Giving yourself a break may help you to test and notice if you are becoming addicted and therefore keep your SNS use healthy.
Following people we know, active use and vigilance about addiction
All in all, the use of online social network sites such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is extremely common. They may have positive and negative effects on our psychological well-being. Three strategies were mentioned to protect ourselves from the negative effects. First, we should follow/add friends, the people we know in real life. Second, we should use social network sites actively (but not passively). Finally, we should be vigilant about the addictive nature of social network sites and monitor our symptoms of addiction. Lastly, we should always remember that it is not the social network sites that are good or bad, but how we use them.
Tips on controlling smartphone overuse.