The Ramifications of Social Media

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Imagine that you are walking to the shops one day. As you turn the last corner along the way, however, you discover a lion standing there, staring straight at you. What then happens, physiologically? You immediately freeze up, the fear centre in your brain (the amygdala) activates, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the release of adrenaline (epinephrine), your heart rate and blood pressure both rise dramatically… And then you run!

This is the body’s response to stress, also known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Its evolutionary utility can be seen through the fact that it is possessed also by birds, fish and reptiles! Primordial mechanisms such as these don’t disappear in response to a few centuries of change. So although we now live in an age where the likelihood of encountering a lion is slim, the stress response is still very much extant. This means that it can be activated for things that are far from tantamount to the situations for which it originally evolved. Consider, for instance, the fact that we feel stress today by failing to close a business deal with a client, by being too impecunious to pay an upcoming mortgage bill, or by turning on the morning TV, only to watch Matt Hancock yet again prevaricate on a series of painfully straightforward questions. The ramifications of it now being so easy to induce stress include an increased vulnerability to certain infectious diseases, an increased likelihood of developing hypertension (high blood pressure), and an increased risk of adult-onset diabetes.

What relevance could the stress mechanism possibly bear towards an article on social media? A lot: it is illustrative of the fact that our bodies are hardwired to a substantial degree, meaning, therefore, that the emergence of evolutionary novelties – cognitively demanding jobs, television, upcoming bills – can have an inadvertent effect on our health. Why would social media be any different?

The like counter as an indicator of social position

As social creatures, our behaviour is fundamentally influenced by where we perceive ourselves to reside within the social hierarchy. For example, a 1999 study showed that females who were reminded of negative stereotypes surrounding women and maths, subsequently perform worse on a maths exam than those who were not reminded. In this sense, imagine going into work as usual, but being complimented by various people over a hundred times throughout the course of the day. How would you react, assuming you weren’t sceptical? Perhaps you would stand up straighter with your shoulders back; you might make more eye-contact with people; you might be better able to articulate yourself during debate. But what changed, fundamentally, that inhibited or prevented you from acting this way in the first place? You perceived yourself as having ascended the social hierarchy! And as a fascinating example of evolutionary continuity, lobsters – despite having been around for more than 350 million years – will also ‘cheer up’ when told, neurochemically, that they have ascended the social hierarchy!

Are 100 verbal compliments really all that different to 100 likes on Instagram? I believe that for an individual who has been immersed in social media from a young age, the two are psychologically indistinguishable. Troublingly, this means that an Instagram user will infer hierarchical position not from clothes, lexicon and body language, but from the number of likes that they received last night. An unexpectedly low number of likes must therefore mean only one thing: a demotion in social status. And if social status is contingent on such a capricious, superficial metric, is it any wonder that rates of depression have increased by 52% between 2005 and 2017, amongst adolescents aged 12 to 17? In my own experience, I have heard people remark on numerous occasions, with either glee or despondency, that their Instagram post either did or did not match the number of likes that they wanted it to. And as an attempt to stave off the embarrassment of appearing unpopular, just after uploading to Instagram, people will literally text their friends to ask that they like their post, notwithstanding the fact that this essentially defeats the purpose of a like to begin with. The fact that a person’s mood could be so amenable to something so apparently trivial, gives us a profound insight into just how entrenched social media can become in the psychology of those who use it enough.

Our proclivity to compare ourselves to others

As a corollary to the fact that our behaviour is inextricably tied up with status, we must be compelled to compare ourselves with one another. For how else are we to reliably gauge our relative hierarchical position? This entails that social media users will compare their lives to those they see depicted on screen. As Jordan B. Peterson once pointed out, this perhaps wouldn’t be so problematic, if it wasn’t for our propensity to make our lives seem better than they are.

For example, imagine that you are walking along the street (there are no lions this time) and you bump into someone who you have not seen for a while. When they ask you, ‘how’s it going?’, your response is likely to be a simple, ‘good thanks!’ However, what you will neglect to tell them is the fact that it took two hours to get out of bed this morning, and now you need to drive your mum to her second operation of the week, but before doing so, that dilapidated car of yours still needs taking to the garage to be fixed! In other words, we will say ‘I’m good thanks’ even if it couldn’t be further from the truth.

However, it appears that this behaviour is amplified by social media. Because our social media posts don’t seem merely to say, ‘I’m good thanks!’; they are more along the lines of, ‘I am absolutely fantastic and my life is going so well at the moment; here is another utopian post to add to the panoply of already existing ones!’ Due to the fact that such posts are so convincingly real, when social media users continuously compare their lives to those they see depicted on screen, predictably, they will always stack up short. 

The ramifications

With such damaging comparison, it is no wonder that not only has the rate of suicide-related thoughts amongst young adults increased by 47%, from 2008 to 2017, but that social media usage has now been identified as commensurate with eating disorder symptoms.

That is just the tip of the iceberg, however, because in 2016, a survey of 2,000 parents showed that 75% of UK children are now spending less time outside than prison inmates. Concomitant with a lack of going outdoors, children will no longer be practising how to converse with others face-to-face, and thus won’t be learning to detect the implicit social cues that constitute 90% of in-person communication. Hence, in 2018, the American General Social Survey showed that more than twice as many millennials were sexually inactive in their early 20s, compared to those from the previous generation. And a study by an American dating site called ‘The Do’, revealed that 20% of participants would actually now rather text someone than talk to them, as this gives them enough time to think of a response. In light of this, perhaps it is quite apt that we often hear older people lament that ‘the young have lost the art of conversation’.

What can we do about it?

In my view, the fundamental problem at the heart of these alarming statistics is the fact that our bodies are not biologically equipped to deal with social media; a childhood that is spent scrolling through TikTok for six hours a day is conducive to nothing but future psychological turmoil. But, alas, the technology is not going anywhere, so what can we do about it?

In my opinion, we urgently need to become attuned to the loss of life experience that social media so potently facilitates. It is something of a truism that kids need to play – socialise – from about the age of two, in order to develop properly. Parents should therefore resist the temptation to use technology to prevent their children’s boredom. Furthermore, we should also render taboo certain things such as being on your phone at the table – it is pitiful, for example, to see a family of four who have all decided to eat together at a restaurant, but are nonetheless completely preoccupied with their phones, apparently indifferent to the fleeting time that they get to enjoy with one another.

Moreover, we can look to the last 99.9% of our lineage, in order to highlight what can be done to combat the excesses of social media. Namely, we can get sunlight and fresh air in the morning (instead of opening snapchats for an hour), go for a walk or a run (part of the reason why our ancestors did not suffer stress-related issues is because exercise helps to alleviate the harmful effects of stress hormones), talk to people face-to-face (rather than by text) and make eye contact whilst doing so (we are the only animals with sclera (the ‘white’ in our eyes) for an evolutionary reason), and perhaps most importantly, join an intrinsically appealing community of some sort (Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone, showed that happiness is best predicted by ‘the breadth and depth of one’s social connections’).

Lead a lifestyle that’s as independent of social media as possible.