In order to maintain health, the most commonly recommended actions are diet and exercise. It is widely known that choosing quality, whole foods over empty calorie, junk foods provide better nutritional intake to support a healthy body. Unfortunately, the American population is “the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history” (Brown, 2010, pg. 36). When considering how technology is revolutionizing our world, is it possible, that we have entered an age where we are now, also, socially obese? In other words, are we attempting to satisfy our need for love and belonging with frequent binge episodes of empty activity on social media platforms?
As a Millennial parent of a young child who is intrigued by texting, FaceTiming, and online games, I do my best to limit the use of technology, or at least ensure it is a positive and educational experience. It seems I get to observe her need to belong in this world by her desire for her own phone or app watch because others have them around her. I’m also aware of the glories of life without technology. This compelled me to find the best research on the topic of how technology is changing us.
Humanity has the longest period of childrearing of any species, and therefore, is wired to be social. Attachment theory would argue we feel more secure and confident in whom we are when attached to an attentive caregiver (Bowlby, 1969). Therefore, the technological development of social media to satisfy our need for connection is not unusual. Research has highlighted the positives of social media use. But, what are the bounds of healthy use? Is social media use like binging on junk food and is there a healthier replacement?
There are factors that make social media an easy go-to for social interaction and even addiction. For example, Dr. Susan Weinschenk, who is an expert on user experience in computer systems, outlines how social networking may activate the brain’s reward system on her blog (November 7, 2009). She identified the following factors:
- Immediate gratification
- Anticipatory thrill (anticipating reward is more rewarding than receiving the reward)
- Endless amounts of small bits of information (little information can make us more curious, leading to endless browsing or rabbit trails over hours)
- Unpredictability of rewards
Based on her research, it appears our brain jumps into an endless dopamine high when engaging social media. Berridge (1998) argues that dopamine is central to seeking pleasure and the opioid system causes us to experience pleasure. Therefore, it makes sense to me that when we browse, post, and game, hours fly by without notice due to the activation of both of these systems.
Unhealthy Social Media Use
There are several studies that clarify at what points social media use loses its benefit. Initially, it is well established that the hormone oxytocin is a bonding hormone, released during delivery of a newborn baby, and at moments of physical or social contact. When a study challenged teens with a stressful task and examined different avenues of receiving emotional support from their parents, oxytocin was implicated. The teens who did not reach out to their parents and those who texted their parents had no noticeable difference in their cortisol or oxytocin levels. The teens who sought support over the phone or face to face, had increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol levels (Seltzer, Prososki, Ziegler, & Pollak, as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 130). Therefore, hearing someone’s voice or seeing a person face-to-face was more effective in comforting. It appears that the convenience of technology did not benefit the teens in effectively decreasing stress and increasing bonding.
Moreover, excessive social media use is a concern due to the restricted form of communication that may lack tone of voice, body language, and other avenues of feeling emotionally connected. Those who spend excessive time on screens have more difficulty interpreting facial expressions (Engelberg & Sjöberg as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 135). Greenfield’s concern is that technology may encourage autistic-like traits, such as poor eye contact and poor reading of social cues, in an online user (McDowell; Waldman, Nicholson, & Adilov; Hertz-Picciotto & Delwiche; as cited in Greenfield, 2015, p. 136). Other researchers are attempting to clarify any relationship between internet use and lowering levels of empathy. Therefore, excessive use can be a barrier to developing social skills needed to facilitate bonding and attachment in the real world.
Another concern is that social media is replacing real life relationship maintenance. It appears that those who have social anxiety and believe it to be a better platform for self-disclosure are more likely to use social media to build relationships (Oldmeadow, Quinn, & Kowert; Trepte & Reinecke; as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pgs. 102 & 104). The amount of time spent on social media was not linked to having a larger offline network or feeling emotionally closer to offline network (Pollet, Roberts, & Dunbar, 2011 as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pgs. 133). It seems the excessive use of social media may be an act to avoid social anxiety than a tool to overcome it.
Additionally, the use of social media may not benefit self-image. Those with low self-esteem have more frequent posts about negative attributes which seems to lead others to “like” their comments less or reject the online identity altogether (Valkenburg, Peter, & Schouten as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 120). Whereas, in real life, friends may have been able to see their other attributes and consider their negativity more tolerable. Given limited immediate feedback, social media also allows for narcissism to manifest which is linked to low self-esteem (Buffardi & Campbell as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 117). Therefore, those with low self-esteem who rely on social media for connection may create a cycle of rejection and self-inefficacy in online relationships they rely on for intimacy.
Lastly, we advertise our best or “ideal self” on social media or develop a new identity altogether (Zhao, Grasmuck, & Martin as cited in Greenfield, 2015, pg. 117). For that reason, virtual reality continues to reflect less of actual reality. Consequently, we are exposed to the edited or imaginary version of a real person. Besides the scary implications of false identities online, social media provides us with an overwhelming number of personas to compare to ourselves. Therefore, perhaps the implications of our increased reliance on social media to meet our social and emotional needs is more complex than we think and possibly as nutritious as a junk food binge.
It is a relief to know that research has also identified the benefits of social media. Greenfield (2015) concluded from several studies, that it can be a beneficial avenue for maintaining relationships that were established offline. In order to be resilient from some of the drawbacks of social media use, I recommend that we:
- Limit the time online to two hours or less each day
- Develop social skills in offline relationships and work through social anxiety
- Build face-to-face relationships while using social media to advance those connections
- Work to limit online comparison, choose self-acceptance, and enhance self-esteem
It is my hope that, similar to other health-conscious trends such as yoga and organic eating, Americans would trend healthy Internet and social media use.
Berridge, K. C. & Robinson, T. E. (1998). What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience? Brain Research Reviews, 28, pp 309–369.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Greenfield, S. (2015). Mind change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. New York: Random House.
Weinschenk, S. (November 7, 2009). 100 things you should know about people: #8 Dopamine makes us addicted to seeking information. Retrieved from https://www.blog.theteamw.com/2009/11/07/100-things-you-should-know-about-people-8-dopamine-makes-us-addicted-to-seeking-information/