Christmas, it is often said, is a time for giving. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer those we love is the gift of our attention. Our best gift to ourselves may be simply time for mental reflection and emotional renewal.
Both may require a deliberate decision to spend less time in the world of social media. A University of Copenhagen study released this week suggests that excessive use of social media can damage our emotional wellbeing. Among other things, the study says that over-engagement with Facebook and other platforms can give rise to feelings of envy.
On this point, the study is reinforcing what we already know. Several research projects over a few years, drawn from various parts of the world, have found that extensive use of social media use makes people feel more downcast and depressed than they otherwise would.
Many of these research projects have focused mostly on Facebook, mainly because it is the biggest player in the market. For the most part, though, their findings can reasonably be applied to other platforms.
Social media are not the ideal places to go if you want to reinforce a positive self-esteem. One of the reasons for this is, of course, that nobody shows their worst possible life on social media. This is again borne out by the Danish study. People don’t jump on Instagram to upload a photo or video of themselves taken at seven o’clock in the morning, as they claw their way out of bed in a daze, following a torrid night-before. Most Twitter users won’t tweet about their session clearing the drains or washing the car (unless it’s a Mazerati).
Because social media are largely public broadcast (or narrowcast) platforms, users want to be seen doing interesting, amusing and in some cases even highly dangerous things. Even if viewers are aware of this fact – and most are – they can be left with feelings of inadequacy and the sense that their own lives don’t quite match up to the social norm.
What the Copenhagen study doesn’t appear to mention is the disturbing fact that prolonged use of social media cuts down on our “eyeball time”.
So many of our relationships now are mediated using screens, so we don’t spend as much time as we once did eyeballing one other.
This is why, according to a leading British psychologist, children as young as five years in the UK are exhibiting autism-like symptoms. They haven’t learned how to read basic facial signals in other people, because they’re so often engaged with digital displays.
There is also the challenge posed by social media to our attention spans. An American study some time back suggested that the average attention span for an internet user is around eight seconds. Relating this more specifically to social media, a group of Canadian researchers found that university students who use Facebook, even on a casual basis, tend to get lower average grades than those who don’t.
One reason for this is that the internet is an ecosystem for distraction. Sir Tim Berners Lee’s great contribution to the internet was to create a means by which computer users could connect with remote documents using hypertext protocol links. The resulting network of information, which became known as the World Wide Web, is now the foundation upon which we’ve built the ubiquitous Cloud. Data is still accessed online through the use of Lee’s clickable links.
The beauty of this system is the speed with which we can skip from one piece of information to another, without leaving the screen before us. The downside is that in doing so we may never rest in one place long enough to take in what we’re reading, viewing or listening to; our brains don’t have time to assimilate what we’re learning or experiencing, building it into long-term memory. As a result, we have no opportunity to turn our new-found knowledge into innovation, because new ideas are always built out of connections between old, or stored, ideas.
As a further consequence of this, we are now building transactional relationships with machines. A number of studies reveal that we tend not to remember what we learn on the internet as much as where we found it. We rely on Pocket, Evernote or a similar Cloud-based programme to actually store the content we read. Again, the consequence is that there is little potential for connecting new information with old inside the human brain; there’s little room for creating something new.
Another challenge with social media is that in the process of exposing us to so many new people, it reveals how many interestingindividuals we could know but don’t. Again, this potentially sets us up for the feeling that we’re somehow falling short, especially if our online “friends” seem always to have more “followers” than us. There is the danger that we can expend so much energy trying to attract new online contacts – most of whom will represent only surface-level connections – that we have little left to invest in new or existing offline friends, with whom we might form much deeper bonds.
Finally here, let’s consider the growing body of evidence for increasing levels of social disinhibition among many new media users.Psychologists have noted how often people say things online that they’d never dream of saying offline. Bullying and trolling represent the most extreme manifestations of this problem, but its impact can be felt on a much wider level.
In one British study, two percent of 2,000 British people admitted to having insulted someone they didn’t know online within a given year.
That doesn’t sound like many people, but if you extrapolate it over the entire UK population, it represents one million people insulting one million other people vai the internet, which is hardly helpful for social cohesion in an age of alienation.
Social media have presented us with many wonderful opportunities. Not the least of these is the capacity to collaborate in innovative ways across vast distances, potentially solving previously intractable problems. Mass innovation is now bearing fruit in the worlds of medicine, education, technology, science, business and more. There is no place for Luddism here. Yet it is worth remembering that technology is amoral. Our collective future will not be the product of the technologies we use, but of how we as human agents choose to use and develop them.
The University of Copenhagen study gives us pause to reflect. As we approach the festive season, we would do well to remember one thing. Social media certainly affords us unprecedented opportunities for contact with friends from whom we are unavoidably separated by distance. But the process of engaging with these media can become so habit forming that we unwittingly neglect friends, loved ones and neighbours who are physically within our reach.
Limiting our use of social media may be the best gift we can offer our children, parents, friends and neighbours this Christmas.
Hear Mal's latest radio interview on this here.