In the movie Crocodile Dundee, when the title character arrives in New York City, he’s told that it’s home to seven million people. “That’s incredible,” says Dundee. “Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. New York must be the friendliest place on earth.”
As laughable as that line is, it’s not as naïve as the notion that social media is uniting the planet harmoniously (as some projected it would in the early 2000s). Today, more than three billion people worldwide—40% of the population—use social networking sites, but many would rather not. For example, according to a Harris Poll, 46% of Americans surveyed about Twitter said they wanted to “kill it and hope it dies.”
Suddenly, New York not only seems tiny by comparison, but just as congenial as Dundee assumed.
For as much as social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to help ideas and entertainment reach every corner of the globe, they’ve also played a large role in dividing us socially and culturally. Something that was designed to bring us all together is, in many cases, driving us further apart, and science suggests that the end result is loneliness and isolation.
The answer isn’t to abandon social media entirely, but to make sure your offline relationships don’t suffer because of it, and taking a substantial break from social networking sites may recalibrate your sense of what community truly means. Afraid to unplug? It’s time you considered the antisocial aspects of social media.
Social Media Is Killing The Art of Conversation
“Social media relationships tend to be less real because we’re not with each other face to face, heart to heart,” says Dan Engle, MD, a functional medicine doctor and psychiatrist (drdanengle.com). “We can’t read social and emotional cues when we’re online, so they don’t let us really understand the fullness of each other’s experience and who we are.”
In fact, Engle says that the neurons that control our ability to empathize don’t fire the same way as when we’re talking in person, and that hurts our ability to understand another person’s point of view and connect with him/her emotionally. “We can’t appreciate the nuances of what the person is saying and feeling,” says Engle, and that makes true communication much harder. As a result, it’s easier to misinterpret statements and intentions (one reason there are so many arguments on social media comment threads), and conversations in general are less engaging and fulfilling.
How many times have you texted a person, or commented on a photo he/she posted, and then stared into the glass of your phone screen waiting impatiently for a response? “If you don’t get it right away, you may think, ‘What’s wrong?’” says Engle. “And, ‘Maybe that person doesn’t like me because he hasn’t responded.’ Social media is urging us to build the expectation of immediate gratification,” while real relationships require patience and understanding.
Research shows that even when people do get together in person, the very presence of a social device can damage their interactions. A study in the British Psychological Society paired off strangers to have conversations with each other for 10 minutes. Each pair sat in a private booth, and half the booths had a mobile phone. Those who had the phone in their field of vision reported their conversations as being less meaningful, and feeling less connected to their partner. Note that the phones weren’t used—their mere appearance proved distracting by itself. The researchers speculated that thinking about their own social networks (which their mobile phones might have represented to the subjects) made face-to-face chitchat more challenging.
Social Media “Friends” Could Replace Your Actual Ones
Nearly everyone can agree that social media threatens the art of conversation, but it was only ever intended to supplement the relationships we already have with people. It could never replace them outright… right?
Evidence suggests that it could. A 2017 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine examined social media use and social isolation among young adults in the U.S. It used a nationally representative sample of 1,787 people aged 19–32, and assessed their usage of 11 social media platforms: Facebook, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube.
The findings showed that those who visited any of these platforms at least 58 times per week were more than three times as likely to feel socially isolated compared to those who used social media fewer than nine times per week. (Fifty-eight might sound like more than you would indulge in, but try counting how many times you check your Instagram in a day; chances are good you’re in this ballpark.) Despite regular check-ins with their online communities, these people said they were lonely.
What’s more is that these young adults saw themselves as being without social relationships even when they did have real friends offline. Their use of social media may have actually warped their perception of how socially connected they really were. The researchers wrote: “Exposure to such highly idealised representations of peers’ lives [as is found on social media platforms] may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives, which may increase perceived social isolation.”
Engle adds that “People are spending more time in these virtual connections but are feeling more isolated partly because the time they’re spending in the virtual arena is taking away from the time they’re spending in the personal arena. These two areas are not equivalent, but the expectation is that they are.”
Social Media May Make You Jealous
President Theodore Roosevelt said that “comparison is the thief of joy.” A German study may have proven it.
A third of participants felt that social media gave them negative emotions—mainly, frustration that stemmed from envy. The envy came from comparing their lives to others, and seeing other people’s travel/vacation photos were the biggest trigger. (This envy was also noted as leading to a decrease in life satisfaction.) In an ironic twist, the people responded by adding the same type of content to their own social media profiles that made them jealous in the first place!
Jealous feelings may not just hurt you, but the people you care about as well. Canadian researchers surveyed 300 people on feelings of jealousy when using Facebook. One of the questions they used: “How likely are you to become jealous after your partner has added an unknown member of the opposite sex?” Women were found to experience significantly more jealousy than men, and the researchers concluded that Facebook actually created these feelings, and heightened the participants’ concerns about the quality of their romantic relationships.
The scientists wrote: “We argue that this effect may be the result of a feedback loop whereby using Facebook exposes people to often ambiguous information about their partner that they may not otherwise have access to and that this new information incites further Facebook use.”
Take A Social Media Fast
We’re not suggesting that you delete all your social media accounts and pretend that this worldwide phenomenon doesn’t exist, and we’re not denying that social media can offer many powerful and unique benefits (see our other report on social media and health HERE). The answer may not be to remove it from your life, but to remove yourself from it from time to time.
“Most of the younger demographic, people in their 20s, have been raised on the social media platform,” says Engle. “It’s going to continue to be a cultural driver. If we don’t learn how to use it or to take occasional detoxes from it, it’s going to continue to be negative for our social development, our relationships, and our own sense of self worth.” (For tips on cutting back on your social media consumption, click HERE.)
Onnit is leading by example this Christmas, taking a social media fast of its own from December 23 to 29. We won’t be posting or engaging on any of our channels, and we encourage you to do the same. Take the week to spend the holidays with friends and family in person as much as you can. When you pick up your devices again, you may have a new perspective on how, and how much, you want to use them.
“Harvard did an 80 year-long study on longevity predictors,” says Engle. “What they found correlated most to a long, happy life wasn’t genes, diet, exercise, sleep, or how much money you have. It was the quality of one’s social relationships. Everything else is secondary to what’s happening in our hearts.”