A new study in the American Journal of Health Promotion has found a correlation between negative experiences on social media and perceived social isolation, which is an individual’s feelings of separation from one’s social circles.
The study took place at a large mid-Atlantic University and surveyed the social media experiences of over 1,100 college students between the ages of 18-30.
After adjusting for demographic differences, the study found positive experiences on social media were not significantly connected to any decrease in perceived isolation. However, for every 10 percent increase in negative experiences, students reported a 13 percent increase in perceived loneliness.
Dr. J. Mark McKellop, PhD, professor and chair of psychology at Juniata College, said this matches with other research in the field.
“Dr. Jean Twenge (a psychology professor from San Diego State University) has been doing research on (social media impact) for quite a while,” McKellop said. “If you go back about 10 years when smartphones came out, there has since been a 30-35 percent increase in suicides in teenagers, and something like a 40 percent increase in rates of depression and anxiety. Other studies have come out recently that show kids who are on screens the most, whether social media or not, are much more likely to receive diagnoses of depression, anxiety or have been to see a psychologist.”
He added these studies show social media does not just bring people together but also might do some harmful things.
Of course, both McKellop and the study recognize the evidence is not yet strong enough to say social media causes these things to happen.
“It is too strong to say devices are ruining kids’ brains,” McKellop said. “Brains are really adaptive and powerful. But it probably is teaching and reinforcing very unhealthy things.”
One of these unhealthy things is known in psychology as negativity bias, which is the idea that people are more impacted by negative experiences and tend to remember them more than positive ones.
McKellop explained this lines up research over the last several decades about people who tend to ruminate, or think about their past failures over and over again. The focus on the negative can release stress hormones that can be detrimental to an individual’s health.
McKellop said there is an expression in psychology classrooms that says “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”
“This just means that the more often you activate these particular memories in your brain, the stronger the connection gets, and they stay tied together,” he said.
Jonathan Revely-Cohen, a counselor at Juniata College, believes “social media and technology are capitalizing on negativity bias.”
“Not necessarily with intent,” he said. “But it nevertheless is happening.”
He explained engineers and app developers create the most addictive product they can so people will keep using the product, and sometimes that includes using negativity bias for their own benefit.
“I have heard when people have closed their Facebook account, they will get flooded with types of information (of what they are missing) through their email that is connected to Facebook to entice them to reopen the account,” Revely-Cohen said. “Engagement is (social media’s) business. The more people that engage with their app, the stronger their business is.”
Revely-Cohen explained the apps seem to be more interested in getting people to use their product than on how the app might affect quality of life.
“The theory that social media will help people be more connected, have more satisfying lives … we’re just not seeing that,” said Revely-Cohen. He added, “I don’t think getting off (social media) completely would hurt.”
Unfortunately, McKellop said teenagers especially have difficulty giving up or limiting social media, even if it brings them negative experiences, because of a fear of missing out.
“An adult might sit down with (a teenager) and say, ‘Why not just turn the phone off? It’s stressing you out,’ but the way the teen brain works, it is really hard for them to do that,” he said.
Teenage brains have a very high emphasis on the possibility of reward, McKellop explained. While a 30-year-old might think more about the potential risks, teenagers focus on the potential.
“So when an adult says to turn the phone off, the teenager will just sit there and worry about missing out and get stressed out, creating a story in their head that’s way worse than anything going on,” McKellop said. “Most people probably won’t even notice they haven’t been online.”
Revels-Cohen says this can also be seen in how apps use notifications. He explained he gave a presentation at Juniata College where he played notification sounds but asked people not to check their phones. He could tell people started to get nervous when they heard the sound and could not satisfy their impulse to check their device.
“To create engagement, apps create a negative emotion that is relieved through the app that creates the negative emotion,” Revely-Cohen said. “It’s a terrible cycle.”
Despite this, Revely-Cohen does not view himself as against social media or technology.
“It would be nonsensical to make (social media and technology) illegal, but that doesn’t mean they should have unrestrained use among people that are most susceptible to harm, especially children who are still in development of impulse control and socialization,” he said.
Instead, he calls for more intentional use of social media, choosing to engage instead of being dragged there by notifications.
“At the bare minimum, there are ways you can silence your phone or limit your apps,” McKellop said. He suggests teaming up with some friends to set limits and hold each other accountable to those limits. For parents, he recommends similar limitations.
“Have a dialogue with your kids that part of growing up and part of life is learning to balance things,” McKellop said.
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