What is the effect of social media on society?
Social networks facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, and many other forms of expression— but is too much of a good thing a bad thing?
Social media can be very addicting, subsequently affecting productivity. With the introduction and popularization of social media, the world has developed a growing need for instant gratification.
Depending on how you use it, the internet can also elevate dopamine to unnatural levels. This is because the internet is a novelty machine, something dopamine is particularly reactive to. We are wired to crave new information, and new information is interpreted as a reward. If we weren’t curious about new things, we wouldn’t find new sources of water, food, or shelter. This novelty is why it’s so easy to find yourself clicking and scrolling through social media for way longer than you intended. It rewards you with some level of novelty for a very easy behavior. Scroll, swipe, or click. Like the monkey reacting to the light switch and getting a rise in dopamine which motivates him to press a lever, your brain interprets your smartphone as if you were in a specific environment where moving your thumb gives you the reward of new information. So being in that environment acts as a cue which stimulates dopamine release, and your thumb moves. But this doesn’t end; you can still swipe for the chance to get another cool picture, so your dopamine remains elevated. This never ending novelty is what leads to the abnormal elevation. Ironically, the aspect of this that raises dopamine the most is that you might get an interesting piece of information. The first ten tweets might be boring, but the eleventh might be good, and that keeps you going. Letting yourself be controlled by the internet’s novelty appeal takes power away from the prefrontal cortex, and gives it to the brain’s primitive and impulsive reward circuit. In short, the brain becomes wired to seek out instant gratification, and becomes less capable of pursuing long term goals, which require the willpower to delay gratification.
For many, social media may not be so social after all. Studies show that among young adults in particular, heavy use of social platforms such as Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram is associated with feelings of isolation. 1,787 U.S. adults were surveyed and asked about their usage of social media platforms outside of work. Those that reported spending the most time on social media (more than two hours a day) had twice the odds of perceived social isolation when compared to those who spent less time. Humans are naturally social beings, meaning that it is in our DNA to be connected, face-to-face, with other humans. People think that being on social media all the time makes them “connected”, when in reality, they are actually disconnected. The more time one spends behind a screen, the less time one spends face-to-face. Part of this loneliness stems from the fact that the majority of people who use social media are viewing as well as posting, thus spending a lot of time voyeuristically looking at other peoples’ posts— where they are, where they are going, and what they are doing. The constant exposure to everyone else’s seemingly “perfect” lives causes feelings of loneliness and inadequacy.
Humans possess a fundamental drive to compare themselves with others. While social media can be a wonderful tool, there is a potential downside to frequent usage. As people go about their daily lives using social media sites, they risk overexposure to upward social comparison information that can have a cumulative negative effect on their well-being. Additionally, when people that already possess low self-esteem use social media sites to express themselves in a seemingly safe environment, they have the potential to enter a vicious cycle of receiving social support, but also being exposed to constant upward social comparison, further impairing their self-esteem. Two studies have looked at the impact of chronic and temporary exposure to social media sites on self-esteem and overall self-evaluations. The first study found that frequent Facebook users had consistently lower self-esteem compared to those who used Facebook less (or not at all). The extent of upward social comparison was far greater than that of downward social comparison, resulting in a negative effect on self-esteem. Essentially, chronic Facebook users are negatively impacted from comparing themselves to others who are “better” than them. This upward comparison has a far stronger impact on them than the potential benefits arising from downward social comparisons. The second study examined the impact of temporary exposure to social networking sites on self-esteem. After exposure to a person with a high activity social network, participants experienced lower self-esteem and poorer self-evaluations. Participants’ self-evaluations were poorer after exposure to an upward healthy comparison target. Generally speaking, viewing social media profiles with positive content resulted in poorer self-esteem and more negative self-evaluations.
All in all, social media can absolutely provide society with benefits. With that said, however, it also has its fair share of downsides. It impairs our ability to pursue long-term goals by wiring us to seek out instant gratification, exacerbates feelings of isolation, and has the potential to negatively impact self-esteem.