When we think of social media at the turn of the Millennium, its general concept was to create a relationship between people and technology. Conversations between someone in Edinburgh and someone in Seattle became cost-free and easy.
Over time, the purpose of social media has changed. Its impact has become greater than any of us could have imagined when things like MSN Messenger, MySpace, and Bebo were around.
WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and new technologies have made it easier for people to connect with friends, family, and colleagues. The extensive reach that social media has gained over the years is staggering. It’s estimated that 3.02 billion people will use some method of social media by 2021.
These are new forms of communication that humans didn’t really evolve for. The 24/7 connectivity can be both beneficial and detrimental to our mental, physical, and social health.
With these things in mind, I wanted to research how social media has become less about technology, and more about psychology and sociology.
Why do we love to post?
We’re quite a strange species. We love to talk about ourselves, yet can feel anxious at the thought of being the centre of attention. Humans give around 30–40% of their speech to talking about themselves. Online, that figure jumps to around 80%.
Talking face-to-face means we’re emotionally involved, and we don’t have time to think about what we want to say. We have to read facial cues, understand body language, and make sure we’re using the right tone. It can all get a bit stressful.
Social media takes away the in-person stresses. We have time to construct, think, and refine. Psychologists call this ‘self-presentation’; meaning, we can position ourselves the way we want to be seen and/or thought of. It might not be the truth, but it’s the story we wish to share.
In fact, viewing your own social media profile has been shown to increase your self-esteem.
This surge in self-esteem isn’t a fable. It’s quite real, thanks to two chemicals our brains produce: dopamine and oxytocin.
Dopamine and social media
Often confused as the ‘pleasure chemical’, dopamine creates ‘want’ in the human brain. It causes us to seek, desire, and search. So, as you can imagine, using social media can stimulate our brains to produce this chemical, since the conditions are perfect for it.
Oxytocin and social media
Often referred to as the ‘cuddle chemical’ because it’s released when you kiss or cuddle someone. It’s also released when you use social media — oxytocin levels can rise by up to 13% when you use social media. This hormonal spike is around the same as a person would experience on their wedding day.
Scientists have debated whether social media is addictive. Whether it is or not, we can’t deny that between these chemicals, social media comes with great feelings and leaves us wanting more. The question is, at what cost?
Sociology and technology
Huge numbers of people use social media as their platform for networking. Human beings need to network — it’s one of the major sources of our happiness and fulfilment. People who engage in social media have an impact on each other. The discussions that come out of this form of networking often affect life and business decisions.
It’s important to understand that human relationships are fundamental to the success of social media. The interactivity and accessibility of social media is relatable to human nature.
Helpful and hurtful
The effects of using social media serve their own contradictions.
- Provides a sense of belonging: Everyone wants to feel like they fit in somewhere
- Decreases isolation: Users are up to 50% less likely to feel isolated than non-users
- Connects people: Remote working, long-distance relationships, and revived friendships are all possible with social media
- Increases feelings of inadequacy: Users compare themselves to others and feel inferior
- Decreases in-person communication: Social phobia can occur because of fewer in-person interactions
- Affects sleep: Staying up late texting or browsing social media sites can result in sleep disorders, stress, and depression
Either way, social media has a level of impact on your mental, physical, and social health. Limiting your use is a valuable benefit that your mental health will thank you for.
Humans are a species of social networkers; we think in stories. At the beginning of time, much of what we knew as ‘news’ or ‘facts’ in social networks were stories about witches, miracles, and demons. You only need to think about the story of Eve to realise that some stories have lasting impacts.
There’s no evidence to say that Eve was tempted by a serpent, or that the creator of the world doesn’t like it when a man loves another man. Yet, billions of people have believed these stories for thousands of years.
At the risk of sounding anti-religious, that’s not the point here. The point is that stories, whether real or not, are one of humanity’s most important tools.
You can call it ‘fake news’ or religion, but the fundamental relationship is that people like stories. For better or worse, they bring people together. They inspire people to build hospitals, schools, and bridges, in addition to armies, prisons, and cults. There are two sides to every story, right?
Truth and power can co-exist, but they rarely last together. In a world where people look to build corporations, armies, and followers, at some point you need to spread fictitious stories. Likewise, if you want to understand the truth about the world, you will have to renounce your power by admitting things that some people might not like.
Many of the world’s most powerful scholarly establishments, like Christianity and Catholicism, place unity above truth. That’s why they’re so powerful.
Social media is now one of the biggest platforms for sharing stories. When a person is “insta-famous”, you’ll find that their followers treat every word they say as gospel. They’ll buy the products the ‘celebrity’ is being paid to sell, they’ll comment, like, and share their posts. In some ways, we can view social media as an infinite number of mini-networks; there’s a leader telling (or selling) a story and followers who believe them.
Social media and psychology
The good news is that very few people are truly addicted to social media. The trick is to find a comfortable limit to reduce your compulsion of social media.
It’s no longer a mere technology tool; its impact is far greater on our psychology and sociology.
Check out this infographic by Digital Information World for an overview of social media and its psychological standpoint.