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'I Have Four Friends In Real Life But 4,000 Online' - Craving Instant Gratification

18/09/2017 16:09 BST | Updated 18/09/2017 17:29 BST

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"On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog" - this well-known cartoon published in The New Yorker marks an important moment in the history of the internet. It was published in 1993, yet it's meaning is still true 24 years later. That said, maybe a new version would better read "On the internet, nobody knows you are a puppy" given how many children are online and how many fake their age!

And today, there is less of a distinction between our online and offline lives, they have amalgamated and the line between the two is blurred. In fact a 2014 survey found that teenagers can no longer differentiate between the online world and real life with 45% of 11 to 18-year-olds saying they were happier online than in real life. Similarly, Ofcom recently announced that the average UK adult spends nearly nine hours each day online. But how is this affecting us? And in particular, how is this affecting our children who are growing up with this lifestyle?

Constantly connected

This desire to be connected is not only contributing to our addiction to social media, but it's warping our views on reality. If you have 400 likes on a photo, that means you're popular. If you only get a couple of likes, well clearly there's something wrong. The more likes you get, the more friends you have, which ultimately makes you a popular person. And this to children, and many adults I'm sure, feeds their ego while giving them instant, but short-lived, gratification. It is no wonder that children take a photo and then spend time to filter, shade, adjust and improve. The photo that ends up online rarely reflects the one that was taken.

Children and teenagers in particular are online at a time of their lives where they are exploring who they are themselves. They are trying different styles and different looks. They are working out their identity, their sexuality, their likes and dislikes.

In a speech last year, Facebook's head of marketing said that the average millennial checks their phone 157 times a day. That's 145 minutes per day spent checking to see if someone has liked your status, replied to a message or posted a picture. Social reciprocity is embedded in our use of social media. It's the principle of "give and take" - if you pat my back I pat yours. The rationale behind wanting followers and likes is fairly obvious - people want to be liked and appreciated. For a lot of people, having hundreds of followers or friends on your social media platforms is an indication of how liked or popular someone is. But in 2016, social media star Lauren Giralo, explained how she has 7.5 million followers online but no friends in real life. She highlighted that although she has millions of followers, she doesn't have a deep level of friendship with any of them or anyone in real life. Even though she had millions of people wanting to know every detail about her life, she still didn't feel like she had any friends.

So, is this a having an adverse effect?

Online VS offline

The overwhelming 'too-long-didn't-read' answer is yes, it can - but so can anything. We've all seen the impact that any kind of dependency on drugs, alcohol and other substances can have on children and adults. But I'd also consider Darren Aronofsky's horrific and brilliant film Requiem for a Dream, where one protagonist becomes hopelessly and life-destroyingly addicted to the hope and dream of simply being on a game show.

With that caveat, let's look specifically at social media. According to Clarissa Silver, a behavioural scientist, over half of social media users claim that it affects their self-esteem negatively, impacts relationships and can lead to loneliness and anxiety. Cyberbullying has gone a long way to amplify this issue.

However, studies have also shown that social media can increase social engagement - and in particular - political participation. This makes complete sense - you're engaging with others and gaining an understanding of things happening inside or outside of your social circles. Social media engagement is capable of encouraging great generosity, from disaster relief to a relatively recent story whereby a hilarious date led to a home being damaged, and the tenant appealing to the public because they were struggling to pay the costs (and as I write this, they have raised eight times the amount needed).

Similarly, having online friends gives people who may be isolated by location or illness a way to connect with others that they wouldn't be able to connect with in real life. Using social networks, they are able to develop meaningful connections that improve their psychological wellbeing. Finally and perhaps obviously, people can feel closer to friends and family in other countries which may not be possible otherwise.

A question of biochemistry

The mechanism behind this is relatively well-known. As animals, we're essentially hard-wired to exploit our environment. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released when we should be trying to do something great or escape something nasty. It keeps us going; it's a motivator. That's why breaking down tasks into small, achievable chunks gives us a sense of achievement and a 'doing something buzz' whereas facing a large, unassailable goal makes us unmotivated and despairing!

Social media - which thrives on fast likes, comments and appreciation (or the opposite) - sends this mechanism into overdrive. I sometimes watch Twitter's news feed scrolling by and it's almost irresistible to click or respond to something (and by the way, many of us now scroll further each day than we walk). This motivation is accompanied either by a sense of satisfaction, as our four thousand 'friends' respond, or a sense of failure if they don't - but it's short-term and often lacks context.

We dismiss failure quickly and move on to search for the next moment of gratification, which is why it becomes easier to be negative ourselves and even be abusive online. It's all too easy to take offence that your best friend didn't like your recent status update, but they might have been in an exam, lost their phone or just have been engrossed in a film at the cinema. Stepping away from social media can provide this context.

Children and teenagers are impressionable, and when they see other young people with thousands of followers, they want to emulate this. They think by having more friends or followers online their lives will be improved. However, we have a responsibility to show that it's ok to have friendships online but only if you're mindful of the risks. Research shows that many children pay for followers to increase their perceived popularity and that many of these new 'friends' are not who they say they are. But vanity takes over from sanity and blind eyes are turned aplenty. Over 45 million users on Twitter are actually BOTS and 83 million people on Facebook are not who they say they are. So, it is quite possible that 'follower' envy is false at a deeper level than we fully realise. Maybe children just instinctively know that not 'everyone' is genuine, which may make them sceptics in the real life.

Where do we go now?

It's imperative that we use social media wisely and help our children gain the perspective that we have as adults. It's completely unrealistic to expect them to have absorbed the data from a million scientific studies, but many of them do seem to understand these principles somehow! We must talk to our children about the parts of the internet that aren't so nice and let them tell us about what they know. We should ask about both their real lives and their online lives and help them to make a distinction. And we should ask our children to advise and guide us about being online too. Parents know far less than their children about the digital age.

So, perhaps, if you know what you're doing, having 4000 friends online may not be so bad after all - and if you're lucky, some of them may even be old English sheep dogs!