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Is Social Media Making Us Unhappy?

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The tech boom has revolutionised how we live our lives in countless ways, one of which being that we're constantly plugged in to the internet and able to communicate with each other. However whilst this state of "hyperconnectivity" gives us access to more information and people than ever before, is being constantly contactable making us happy?

Where are we at?

Whether during work or leisure time, businesses have facilitated and increased a need to be always connected. At the office, Blackberry enabled a move from merely the instant delivery of e-mails to instant response (almost) regardless of location, and outside the workplace social media is doing the same. A recent rise in push notifications - alongside the resulting "read" status of conversations that provide social pressure on us to respond - exacerbate our innate desires to belong, be involved and to contribute. All this means that we're constantly interacting with people and the content they produce online 24/7.

However this lifestyle is taking its toll, with 60% of us feeling exhausted by this permanently switched on lifestyle[1]. It's not surprising therefore that we're seeing more and more communications detoxes - ever said "I'm going to have a week without my Blackberry/Facebook?" You're not alone. But whilst we detest our over-reliance on technology, the benefits of being connected outweigh our frustrations and mean we can't live without it[2]. Before long we find ourselves returning to the texting, tweeting, posting, e-mailing, sharing and doing all the other social "ings" that were the initial cause of distress.

Not only are we feeling exhausted by these constant interactions, but they're increasingly making us unhappy, with over a quarter of us (and a third of millennials) now believing that social media is making them less happy with their lives[3]. Whilst that's quite a big statement, if we take a deeper look into what's being shared and why, it's not overly surprising.

Our "Friends"....

In our day-to-day lives our friends are generally selected based on how well they align with our perception of ourselves and where we fit in with the world[4], often sharing characteristics, values and interests with us. As our personalities and lifestyles naturally develop, who we talk to and interact with also changes, with some relationships becoming stronger/weaker and some falling by the wayside completely.

Online however, our social connections aren't as real-time and reflective of whom we interact with in person. Each user having an average of 303 friends[5], whether due to curiosity, nostalgia, or even a few of offending, we rarely delete people from our social networks. With only 10% of these considered our true friends[6], it means that our social streams are cluttered by acquaintances and former friends that we no longer share values or interests with. The fallout of this is that with social streams being real time[7] or algorithm based [8], the majority of content we are exposed to isn't personally relevant to us[9].

Being exposed to content from people we don't necessarily care about however, is unlikely to cause enough distress to make us unhappy. So what is it about the content that is making us so miserable?

...and their Digital Selves

The relative levels of anonymity and lack of legal or social rules in place online[10] have facilitated the growth of people having two personas, our real world selves and our digital selves. This is believed to be due to the concept of "disinhibition" that the internet facilitates. What is meant by this is that the lack of immediate face-to-face response that normally subconsciously prevents us from saying our true feelings/desires etc, results in us being able to express ourselves online as we ideally want to be seen. At its most extreme this can manifest as trolling and the abuse that's particularly prevalent on YouTube and other more anonymous environments. More typically however, we see users over exaggerating experiences or feelings in search of personal validation and to boost their self esteem:

"OMG totally just met Dave Benson Phillips #bestdayever"

[photo album] "Marbella '13 with my bezzies. Best holiday eva!! - with Jane Doe and 4 others"

So What Does it All Mean?

Whilst being able to portray ourselves as we want to be seen is thought to be therapeutic for the sharer and helpful in their path to self-actualisation[11], viewing these sorts of posts at scale it does little but to make viewers unhappy.

As we have seen, we're now constantly exposed to broadly irrelevant messages/content from people we don't generally care about. With the delivery of each piece of content skewed by the sharer's online persona, a relentless exposure to what we perceive - perhaps erroneously - to be the more fulfilling/fun/interesting lives of others makes us devalue our own. Just as the portrayal and promotion of thin women as being attractive is believed to contribute to widespread dissatisfaction with female body image[12], this "Facebook Envy" as psychologist Craig Malkin has recently termed[13], has the same detrimental effect on us.

Unfortunately this issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Whilst it'd be easy to advise people to simply delete these contacts, what causes us harm is the scale and frequency of these micro-irritations, not just a singular annoying post[14]. As such, with smartphone penetration still increasing and causing ever more people to be constantly connected, this trend of social media unhappiness may well be set to increase.

So it remains to be seen just how unhappy we will need to get before we're able to give up social media. Will our learned desire to remain connected result ever let us leave, or will we merely have to tolerate a permanent love-hate relationship with the medium?

References
[1] This Digital Life, Prosumer Report, Havas Worldwide, 2012.
[2] An example of this is the high rate (55%) of nomophobia in the UK - that is, in fear of being without their mobile phone, losing signal, or running out our battery. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/10267574/Nomophobia-affects-majority-of-UK.html
[3] This Digital Life, Prosumer Report, Havas Worldwide, 2012.
[4] How We Choose Our Friends, Lorna V., Psychologies Magazine, November 2012 ed. http://ronicohensandler.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/How-We-Choose-Our-Friends-Psychologies-Nov-2012.pdf
[5] And 18-24 year olds have 510 on average, Marketing Charts, 2013, http://www.marketingcharts.com/wp/direct/18-24-year-olds-on-facebook-boast-an-average-of-510-friends-28353/
[6] A Third of People Don't Like Their Facebook Friends - but won't delete them because they're too nosey, Woolaston V., 2013, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2448423/A-people-dont-like-Facebook-friends--wont-delete-theyre-nosey.html
[7] Such as Twitter.
[8] Such as Facebook.
[9] Contagious Content: What People Share on Facebook and Why They Share it, B Carter, Marketo, p10, http://www.marketo.com/_assets/uploads/Contagious-Content.pdf. Whilst there are various reasons for sharing 3rd party content - Giving, advising, warning, amusing, inspiring, amazing and uniting - none of these are universally relevant to everyone e.g. sharing content to warn people is likely to be location specific, and not everyone finds the same things funny.
[11] Though having been under much scrutiny over the past few years, legal rules in particular are undoubtedly tightening.
[12] Both viewed by Maslow as key areas of personal growth, A. Maslow, Hierarchy of Needs, Motivation and Personality, 1954, outlined at http://www.businessballs.com/maslow.htm 
[13] ITROW Research Projects Fact Sheet, http://www.towson.edu/itrow/4%20-%20Departmental%20Courses/Media%20Portrayal%20of/index.asp
[14] Facebook Envy: How The Social Network Affects Our Self-Esteem, Andrea Shea, 2013 http://www.wbur.org/2013/02/20/facebook-perfection 
[15] As users that post actively annoying content are more likely to be hidden or deleted. It's the smaller posts that chip away at us subconsciously that are more harmful.

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