11/04/2014 08:13 BST | Updated 10/06/2014 06:59 BST

Social Media Is Changing the Way We Think

You know the situation well. You sit down with some close friends, enjoying a good conversation for a few minutes.

Then someone checks their phone. You see another friend pick up hers, then another friend follows suit and, in a moment, they are all silent; transfixed by the screens in front of them.

You ask someone about their day but there is no response. As you consider picking up your own device, you realise that your closest friends are within inches of you.

But you're alone.

Now, there is little doubt that social media is a useful tool. Whether you use Pages or Groups on Facebook, tweet or post photos on Instagram, you're aware of the ways to promote, market and organise using social media.

The problem is knowing where marketing ends and self-promotion begins.

Social media has created an online culture that encourages users to show off whatever they can. This has changed the way we think and behave.

Although we still appreciate what is in front of us - whether a sunset or some friends on a night out - we now instinctively take a moment to consider whether it should go online. Through this, we prioritise sharing content to our virtual connections above enjoying the moment with those immediately around us.

In effect, we become isolated from our situation as we attend to our online audience. This is easier than ever as more of us take to social media via our smartphones: as of Autumn last year, nearly half of all Facebook users access the service on their mobile.


(Image © the author. All Rights Reserved)

The attraction of social media is that we can spend as much time as we like editing and refining our image, whether through the crafting of a status update or the un-tagging of a bad photograph. However, this brings another problem. If we spend more time doing this than engaging with people face-to-face, our identity becomes split between who we really are and what we want people to see.

Pressure to live up to an unattainable polished online identity is - short of triggering a personality disorder - bound to cause anxiety. In one recently reported case, it drove a teenager to attempt suicide.

As we detach ourselves from reality, we become increasingly absorbed by what is happening online. This has developed to the extent that if we don't keep up with our social media channels, we feel excluded. This is why - referring back to the opening scenario - we are compelled to check our own devices as our friends pick up theirs.

What is also concerning is how social media applications and websites are designed to reward compulsive behaviour. On Facebook, we check our notifications for gratification but are equally driven to see that red notification icon disappear. Now that there is a separate ticker for new posts that appear on the News Feed, there is always a red dot to remove: there is always a reason to stay online.

As human beings we are, by nature, social creatures. After all, this is what attracts us to participate in social media in the first place. Ironically, social media has the potential to make us feel lonely and isolated. To avoid any harm to our wellbeing, we need to keep track of its impact on our thoughts and behaviour.