Category: facebook

“Screentime”  is not enough

Lately it seems, not a day goes by, that we don’t hear that social media is doing untold damage to our young people. We see headlines comparing the use of social media to the use of cigarettes, alcohol and even cocaine or heroin. We hear that the time kids are spending online is destroying their brains, or at least, having a detrimental effect of their development. The media seems awash with op-ed pieces on  “social media addiction“, “Facebook Addiction” or “Smartphone addiction“. More and more, we hear strident voices claiming that teenagers are incapable of caring for themselves in the online environment and that the landscape is “dark and full of terrors”. Kids are spending too much time online, we don’t know what they’re up to, and we have to put a stop to it.

Among young people, the use of smartphones, social media and social networking sites is ubiquitous. Along with the smartphone, computer mediated communication has, in a short time, become the norm for a generation. In Ireland, smartphone ownership of those aged between 16 and 29 has all but reached saturation point; 96% of those in that age group use mobile phones or smartphones to access the internet. Of those young smartphone users, 91% are likely to use their devices for social networking. Further, studies show that young smartphone owners check their devices between  50 and 85 times per day. So, given this widespread adoption of both hardware and social software packages,  it is important that we investigate if this technology is having an effect on its users, what the outcomes are, and whether these outcomes are having positive or negative consequences for wellbeing.

Firstly, though, let’s get some social media myths out of the way. There is an opinion out there, that social media or technology is having an overall detrimental effect on wellbeing, that it causes depression and/or increases loneliness, among other things. While there may be anecdotal evidence that this is true, or perhaps public sentiment  that this is the case, these anecdotes are not underpinned by scientific evidence. Social media use, both frequency and intensity, has been implicated in a host of negative social, emotional and behavioural outcomes for users: decreased motivation and poor academic performance,  greater psychosocial maladjustment, poor subjective wellbeing and depression,  negative body image comparisons,  and cyberbullying. That said, the vast majority of studies that find links between social media use and psychological effects are correlational, making it difficult to draw causal inferences.

We also hear that people are “addicted ” to social media, smartphones or particular platforms. This is also not the case; there are no such disorders. While some may use social media problematically, and for some, social media use may impinge on their lives, there are no clinically recognised addictions to these platforms or these devices; the term “addiction” is being used in the colloquial sense. In fact, it has been argued that using this type of language does a disservice to those who are suffering from addictions. The other myth that needs busting is that these addictions are driven by “Dopamine”; that every time we use social media we get a neurochemical reward, that we like and crave this reward, and that we keep going back for more. Dopamine is sloshing around us all the time. Anything pleasurable can lead to increased dopamine availability in the brain but only very few (such as drugs of abuse) lead to chemical dependence.

Amy Orben (Follow her @OrbenAmy), a social media researcher from Oxford University, likens the use of social media to eating, when we talk of outcomes of social media use. When we think of it this way, we can see how difficult it is to say that one thing leads to another. It would be like saying “Eating causes depression”. We see, immediately, how unreasonable this sounds. We need more information – What and how much was eaten? When did our particpants eat it? Who were they with? How were they feeling before they ate? Did they eat because they were depressed? What were the ingredients? Does the person have allergies? Why did they eat what they ate? The list of really pertinent questions goes on. So it is with social media research. There are so many variables that must be accounted for, that it is nearly impossible to apportion blame solely to the use of social media or a simple metric like “screentime”. Indeed, social media allows us to do so many things with so many others, that disentangling what exactly is responsible for what, is extremely difficult.

That is not to say that social media is blameless – it is to say, though, that we need more research. Not only this, but we need more nuanced research; research that shows the effects of social media unambiguously. Firstly, we need to situate research in the world of the user, knowing that they use a dynamic, evolving media, in a socially connected environment. We need to examine the assumptions we make when we describe young people as “digital natives”. Is mere membership of a social networking community enough to draw conclusions about the psychological state of the user? We need integrated, contextual, user-defined examinations, combined with research and theory, to provide us with accurate information. With this kind of research we can compare the effects of social media with the effects of other events happening in the lives of our young people; diet, parenting, education, sleep, etc. This kind of research helps us to inform, to educate and to help. It is not adequate to correlate “screentime” with complex psychological constructs using online, self-report surveys; this type of research is misleading. Taking into account the perspective and social interactivity of young people, the shifting, dynamic landscape of social media and that fact that users experience both positive and negative consequences, will ensure that correct, appropriate and relevant information enters the public domain.

We social media researchers, need to explain to the public that the relationship young people have with technology is complex; it’s not as simple as “screentime”. Young social media users reason, choose and decide how to spend their time and these decisions are based on their goals, interests and temperament. These decisions are not made in a vacuum either; context, family situation, and social relationships all play a key role in time spent on line, whether this time is active or passive, skilled or not. When we consider metrics, not only do age and gender need to be considered, but we also have to think of social class, the device itself and its connectivity, the affordances and constraints of life, who is being connected to and when, where these connections are being made and why and, importantly, what type of activity is occurring. Communicating this complexity is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. Simplistic answers lead to simplistic, ineffective solutions.

The “Foreign Lands” of Social Media.

Foreign Lands
By: Robert Louis Stevenson

Up into the cherry tree
Who should climb but little me?
I held the trunk with both my hands
And looked abroad in foreign lands.

I saw the next door garden lie,
Adorned with flowers, before my eye,
And many pleasant places more
That I had never seen before.

I saw the dimpling river pass
And be the sky’s blue looking-glass;
The dusty roads go up and down
With people tramping in to town.

If I could find a higher tree
Farther and farther I should see,
To where the grown-up river slips
Into the sea among the ships,

To where the roads on either hand
Lead onward into fairy land,
Where all the children dine at five,
And all the playthings come alive.


To help understand the social media landscape, it is sometimes useful to imagine different social media users as citizens of “Foreign Lands”. If we look at digital technology users as existing in separate countries, with separate languages, laws, and customs, we begin to understand differences in usage, but we also start to gain clarity around the attitudes which one set of users hold about the other.

From this perspective, we can imagine adult digital technology use: practical, efficient, business-like, productive, serious. Here, newly developed technology is functional. Valuable hardware allows for communication, software is used industriously, social media helps to make business contacts and to retain business relationships and social networking is one-to-one, relationship maintenance. When content is created, it is purposeful and solemn. The self-censored, mature self is presented carefully.

In another country, digital technology provides an opportunity for “play”. Technology is used frivolously, creatively, messily. Hardware and its value matters little. Software is used incessantly, social media helps to maintain close friendships, social networking and content creation is one-to-one and one-to-many. The online self changes, it amuses and, oftentimes disappears after 10 seconds. In this fun land, citizens compare themselves to others, they aspire to ideals, they obsess over image, they emote, and they have fun.

There is a third country, landlocked by both these countries. Here, is the best of both worlds. Citizens were born and raised here and while there are borders, they are not “hard borders”. Movement between countries is permitted; it is even encouraged. The chief export from this country to their neighbours has been digital technology.  Here, valuable technology is used, equally for its functionality and productivity and for its playfulness and frivolousness. Software allows users to maintain relationships at numerous levels; close personal ties and more informal business contacts. “Friends” number in the hundreds. Residents of this land “invented” social networking and so, are familiar with its nuances and capabilities; content creation comes naturally and flows from the user. Social media applications were adopted and adapted by these nationals, in fact, most application design is by and for these burghers.

Seeing the landscape like this allows us, in the first place, to explore each. We can examine the citizens; we can almost look at them ethnographically. It is also possible from this vantage point to position ourself in the world of the other. We can look at each of the “lands” from the perspective of another land. How do serious people view the frivolous? How do the unconcerned see the serious and the messy? Importantly, it is also possible to see whether our attitudes, laws and customs apply in the foreign land of another. We can imagine, as a tourist, what it would be like to impose our customs, laws, morality and fears on the behaviour of the other and we can even see if our ways of being necessarily apply here.


Think for a moment of an article published on line by the Independent in the UK, where an addiction expert is quoted as saying that giving a young person a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine or a bottle of wine. Leaving aside the fact that this statement is made without any supporting evidence, isn’t it fair to ask whether this person is imposing her beliefs on the residents of a “Foreign Land”? Is it fair to say that this person is speaking to the residents of her own country about the residents of another country; one which she has never visited, one where they speak a language she doesn’t understand?

Making statements like these is deeply unfair. It terrorises parents, while at the same time, diminishing their parenting. It is disingenuous to young social media users, making it seem as though their online activities are somehow nefarious, illicit and dangerous. And, it trivialises substance abuse and addiction. When we make statements about the outcomes of social media use, we really need to do better.


Some thoughts on an ecological perspective of social media research.

Some thoughts on an ecological perspective of social media research.

In considering a framework for research into wellbeing and developmental outcomes of young people, in the context of their relationship with social media, Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological system (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Bronfenbrenner  & Crouter, 1983; Bronfenbrenner & Morrris, 1989) provides a useful perspective. Given the ubiquity of the media and young people’s seeming immersion in it, the significance which Bronfenbrenner places on daily or “molar” activities is particularly useful. In outlining, for instance, how “molar” activities are a reflection of development, differences in age, gender, context, time and place are focused on. Indeed, when considering development, how it is influenced and what it influences, ability, skills, behaviour, relationships and the development of identity all have a place.

A key concern of social media researchers in the last few years, for example, has been “time spent” using social media. Time is seen as a useful metric by which to make assumptions about associations between platforms and the psychosocial lives of users. If we take an ecological perspective, “molar” activities, which necessarily include social media use, are both a cause and a consequence of development. Young social media users reason, decide and choose how to spend their time and these decisions are based on their goals, interests and temperament. Not only this, but these decisions are not made in a vacuum, the young person’s context, family situation, social relationships, all play significant roles in time spent, whether use is active or passive, skilled or not. Additionally, Weisner (2002) identifies dimensions of activity settings where the culture of young people emerges; these could also be included in this ecosystem. These include others who are present when the activity is occurring, what  the activity is, why and how the activity is carried out.

Bronfenbenner allows us to see young social media users situated in a multi-layered context. From here we see users subject to influences that operate in their daily lives; from immediate to more abstracted contextual forces. The context in which the young user moves, is seen as a process, rather than an a processor. So, when we consider time as a metric to examine associations between social media use and wellbeing or developmental outcomes, not only would age and gender be considered, but recognition would also be given to the social class (what type of equipment or connectivity the user can afford), the device, the connectivity provided, the affordances and constraints of the life of the young person, who is being connected to and when, where these connections are being made and why and, importantly, what type of activity is occurring. If this were not complex enough, the ecological system requires us to think of the bidirectionality of contextual influences. So, rather than imagining social media users as passive recipients of content and being effected, we see them actively shaping their social media experiences, the social media landscape and consequently, their development.


Figure 1: Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Model.

Bronfenbrenners Ecological Developmental Model frames thinking about young social media users, consequences of use and interactions with other systems in the ecology.

Microsystems: The young social media user (individual characteristics, personality, temprament) sits at the innermost level of the system. This system involves interactions with peers, family, education provider and neighbourhood. Positioning internet technology, social media or different platforms here, helps to consider user/family, user/peer, user/school, user/platform contexts when thinking about wellbeing or developmental outcomes. We can also imagine interactions between this level and other levels. Furthermore, when one considers that each social media platform offers the user different social media experiences, with different affordances, one could imagine discrete microsystems for each platform.

Mesosystems: At the meso level, connections with other social contexts are made. At this level, those from the user’s microsystem interact with other nodes of influence; a friend may attend a different school or college and interact with others who do not belong to the user’s network. Similarly, parents, teachers and other influential adults within the microsysytem can interact with each other, bringing back to the microsystem artefacts of those interactions, thereby influencing interactions within the microsystem. It is easy to imagine Facebook “friends” interacting with others in their own separate social networks.

Exosystems: Young people are often effected by influences which are outside their control and experience. In the exosystem influences like parental employment, school internet policy,  and government regulation will effect social media use and the outcomes. For example, the type of technology available to the young person, if not in employment, is dependent on the employment status of a parent and if they can afford to purchase a smartphone or afford high-speed broadband. Government policy around availability of certain platforms effects usage and effects; certain governments restrict access to Facebook, WahatsApp etc., while others provide citizens with unlimited, free highspeed broadband. Both of these policy decisions effect users.

Macrosystems: At the more abstract level, wellbeing and developmental outcomes can be influenced by the legal, political and regulatory systems along with the values within the community, attitudes and norms. Importantly, again here, one should remember the bidirectioality of the ecological system. So, norms, attitudes, and values of a young social media user are influenced by others, but the norms, attitudes and values of young people can, in turn, influence others.

An ecological perspective highlights the complexity of researching wellbeing and developmental outcomes of social media. Importantly, this perspective also reminds us to consider proximal or more distal variables, how young people interact with other systems and, we are obliged to be cognisant of the bidirectionality of those interactions. Finally, when thinking about adaptive and maladaptive consequences of social media use, larger (government policy or platform developer ethical standards), abstract (societal values and attitudes), and sociohistorical systems (the changes that occur inside and outside the young person’s life over time) have a place in discussions.



Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Harvard University Press; Cambridge, MA.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In: Damon W, Lerner R, editors. Handbook of child psychology. Vol. 4: Theories of development. Wiley; New York. pp. 999–1058.

Bronfenbrenner, U., & Crouter, A. (1983). The evolution of environmental models in developmental research. In: Mussen P, editor. The handbook of child psychology. Vol. 1, Theories of development. Wiley; New York. pp. 358–414.

Weisner, T. (2002). Ecocultural understanding of children’s developmental pathways. Human Development, 45, 275–281.

Social media policy provisions in Ireland: Legislation, policy statements and regulations.

Following the suicide of the Irish TD, Shane McEntee in 2012, a number of other high profile suicides, and the increase in abuse targeted at politicians through social media, an Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications was convened in early 2013 to examine the role of social media in public discourse. The committee chair, Tom Hayes TD said, in an interview with RTE, that “the media is in a different era now. It is very, very challenging and we need to control it…and put standards in place” (RTE, 2012). When proposing the Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015, former Irish senator Lorraine Higgins said that social media, through which she had personally been subjected to abuse, had released “an unpleasant side of human nature that has been allowed fester because of the lack of clear legislation in this area” (Irish Times, 2015a). In the same op-ed, the senator continued, “the time has come to fight back and work to protect others online who might be more vulnerable and unable to take such abuse. Robust laws designed to protect citizens online are crucial”. In April of 2015, when former Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte introduced the Public Electronic Communications Networks (Improper Use) Bill, he proposed that it would now “make it an offence for a person to send or cause to be sent by means of public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or menacing in character” (Irish Times, 2015b). Clearly, Irish public representatives are aware of the potential of social media and the internet to cause offence. Equally clear is their stated desire to safeguard the interests and rights of Irish citizens through regulation and legislation. That said, since the advent of social media, successive governments have treaded softly in this area.


Given that there is a plethora of regulation, legislation and policy already in place to protect Irish citizens, and given that legislation is sometimes seen as a heavy handed approach to human behaviour, this light touch is perhaps a good thing. It has been suggested by Digital Rights Ireland, among others, that online communication be treated the same way as offline communication and therefore should be subject to the same laws and regulations as existing forms of communication. Indeed, in the courts, this is what has been happening. Public outcry and moral panic in the face of perceived online dangers is understandable, but there are laws in place to protect citizens from these dangers. Calls for legislation in the wake of tragedy or a fresh round of online abuse, while commendable, are reactive and fail to acknowledge that the laws which apply offline also apply online. At its core, social media is a modern form of communication and expression. So, it is to laws, regulations, and policy applicable to social media, concerning how people express themselves and how that expression is protected, that we first turn.

In any discussion around communication and expression, laws pertaining to freedom of speech should be considered. In the Irish context, citizens are afforded freedom of expression; that expression is constitutionally protected, and citizens are also protected from expression. In other words, within the constitution of Ireland, article 40.6.1.i states that the right of citizens to freely express their convictions and opinions is guaranteed by the state (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937). Further, not only does the Constitution protect the citizens right of expression, but with Article 40.3.2., it also protects the citizen “as best it may from unjust attack (and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate) the life, person, good name and property rights of every citizen.” Without a constitutional amendment, changing this article, introducing legislation which effects expression, would be difficult. Notwithstanding this, Ireland is also a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas, without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers” (ECHR, 1950). Additionally, with the passing of the Defamation Act 2009, and the replacing of separate torts for slander and libel with a tort of defamation, false statements made on the internet are now to be regarded libellous, and so defamation, whether committed in a letter, a newspaper, a website or on a social media platform, is defamation.


At times, online communication and expression is addressed specifically to an individual and, at times, this communication can cause the recipient to perceive personal insult. Of particular concern to Irish legislators, over the last few years, has been the issue of online harassment or “cyberbullying”. This concern has been prompted by a seeming increase in prevalence, high profile cases of public figures being harassed online and highly publicised teen suicides (Ciara Pugsley in Leitrim and Erin Gallagher in Donegal in 2012). Again, there have been calls for specific legislation to protect social media and internet users. The now predictable reaction of the political class blissfully ignores the fact that social media and online behaviour are covered by offline laws and regulations. It would also seem that those who call for regulation and penalty for those who misbehave online are either ignorant of the current legislation or, like Mr. Hayes (quoted above) would wish to control or restrict how people express themselves and how they communicate on line. Defining “cyberbullying” is also difficult and while the legal profession in Ireland has made an attempt, there are differences of opinion within Psychology and particularly Cyber-psychology as to whether the behaviour exists, as defined, and whether it is as prevalent as some of the self-report questionnaires say. Due to the difficulty in defining the behaviour, prevalence rates vary from 8.6% (Schenk & Fremouw, 2012) to an astounding 70% (, 2016); the variation in these rates being down to definition and methodology of data collection.

Bullying has been defined by Olweus (1993) as intentional, repeated aggression targeted at an individual who cannot defend them self. Crucially, in the Olweus definition, bullying is comprised of repeated aggression and there is a significant power imbalance between perpetrator and victim. When defining “Cyberbullying” the temptation has been to append “…using technology…” to the Olweus definition. However, certainly from a psychological perspective, there are numerous differences between face-to-face and online aggression. Relatively little is known about the motivations or goals of the cyberbully or the long term consequences to the cyberbullied. That said, existing legislation, Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 (eISB, 2017), states that “Any person who, without lawful authority or reasonable excuse, by any means including by use of the telephone, harasses another by persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her, shall be guilty of an offence”. In addition to this legislation, in September of 2016, the Law Reform Commission (LRC) proposed new criminal offences and an oversight body to protect users of internet technology in Ireland. The commission was particularly interested in protection against “cyberbullying” and “revenge porn”. Firstly, the State legal advisory body proposed a legally binding “code of conduct” which would see the digital industry remove offensive material from the internet in a timely and timetabled way. Secondly, the LRC has proposed the establishment of an office of digital safety commissioner who would oversee implementation of the “code of conduct”. The LRC report, “Harmful Communications and Digital Safety”, stretching to 237 pages, also proposes a number of amendments to existing law; expanding the definition of harassment to include online activity, making “stalking” a specific offence and the expansion of the existing offence of sending threatening messages. As noted above though, harassment, “stalking” and sending threatening messages are already illegal, so it is hard to know the purpose of this report and these recommendations.


As yet, in Ireland, we have not formulated specific internet and social media legislation or regulation and, as can be seen for the above, there is little in the way of “joined up thinking.” The legal profession are content using existing offline legislation to prosecute online transgressions. From a policy standpoint, it would seem that our legislators are content to react to moral panic and public outcry on an ad hoc basis. Social media and the consequences of online misbehaviour provide a convenient whipping boy, a suitable scapegoat (apologies for mixing metaphors) which can be pointed to to confirm technological knowledge or to verify an understanding of the plight of the modern parents or young people. While speaking at the launch of the Citizens Assembly, for example, convened in late 2016 to discuss an amendment to the Irish constitution, Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny pleaded with users of social media to reflect before interacting with the members of the assembly. Social media, he said, “has the Assembly within the reach and the sights of those with deeply held views. Regrettably, we live in a time when an opposing view is no longer seen simply as a diverse opinion, or a topic worthy of debate. Rather, we live in a time when diverse opinion has become something, or someone [sic], to be pitied, to be ridiculed, and indeed, virtually hounded”. The Assembly was being launched, deliberations had not yet begun, yet the Irish prime minister was bewilderingly calling for calm on social media. Tellingly though, in April 2014, the current government published “Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures”, an Irish national policy framework for children and young people up to 24 years. This framework purports to represent and co-ordinate an integration of all departmental and agency policy (local, national, interagency and cross departmental) as it pertains to the care and welfare of children and young people. Along with proposing a vision of rights, inclusion and support for young Irish people, the framework outlines five national outcomes targeting health and wellbeing, learning, protection, economic opportunity, and engagement. The phrase “Social media” is mentioned a total of five times in the framework document, and only then in the context of infrastructure and security.

There is undoubtedly a disconnect between what legislators say, what is necessary, and regulation. There are those, Digital Rights, the legal profession and some legislators, who feel that existing legislation which ensures protection of citizens, is sufficient. On the other hand, some legislators feel that strict legislation is required. It is difficult to pinpoint the reason for this disconnect. Perhaps, the fact that the internet and social media are so recent and that legislators do not fully understand their influences; this would seem unlikely. It is likely, that if the government were to introduce legislation curtailing expression, there would be a public backlash. It is therefore conceivable that within government there is no appetite for a fight; the current Irish government is a minority government, further weakening its position. One could be cynical and assume that the government are unable to legislate something they do not fully understand; it is unwilling to impose legislation on what citizens now consider an entitlement; following a number of bruising battle with the public, there is no appetite for a fight it would surely lose. That said, developing interventions, policy and legislation which addresses online behaviours or which best protects the rights of citizens requires information and knowledge which will come from research. For example, at present in Ireland, there are no policy guidelines in place to protect young social media users from the possible negative effects of the media. Further, there is no research framework in place. So we find ourselves in a position where researchers in Ireland are exploring social on an ad hoc and disjointed basis and “Brezzie”, a television personality, is driving policy around social media and mental health.

From this brief exploration of the legislation and policy pertaining to the internet and social media, which the Irish government, public representatives, government departments have proposed and imposed over the last few years, the picture which emerges is complex. The area itself, particularly social media, is relatively new and not only are young users coming to terms with its use and effects, but parents, teachers and our legislators are also struggling with the media. The leader of the Irish government and the ministers responsible for technology, communication, and the protection of young people are from an era when the internet and social media did not exist. This has lead to an underestimation of the media and its capabilities and has prompted reactions like that of senators Higgins, Rabbitte and former government minister Ruairí Quinn, when he called the internet “a playground for anonymous back-stabbers” (Irish Times, 2012c ).  The majority of young Irish emerging adults now see social media as part of their lives; 96% of Irish 15-35 year olds own a smart phone (Thinkhouse, 2014) and according to research, some spend up to 6 hours per day connected to the internet via some device. Social media clearly plays an important part in the lives of a large proportion of the population, yet in the last decade, successive governments have left the social media world untouched, from a regulatory perspective. For those who advocate for free speech and freedom of expression, this is welcome. However, for the government, parents and educators naiveté drives moral panic, which in turn drives flawed legislation and policy.


Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland) Enacted in 1937.

ECHR. (1950). Council of Europe, Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (European Convention on Human Rights, as Amended) (ECHR) Art 10, 1950.

eISAB. (2017). Article 10 retrieved from on 16th January 2017.

Irish Times. (2015a). Lorraine Higgins: New laws must tackle abusive, threatening trolls. Retrieved from 17th January 2017.

Irish Times. (2015b). Pat Rabbitte introduces Bill to outlaw sinister social media content. Retrieved from 17th January 2017.

Irish Times. (2012c). Quinn says online media as accountable as traditional media. Retrieved from 24th January 2017.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. (2016). Bullying statistics. Retrieved from 17th January 2017.

RTE. (2012). Oireachtas committee to examine social media role. Retrieved from 17th January.

Schenk, A., & Fremouw, W. (2012). Prevalence, Psychological Impact, and Coping of Cyberbully Victims Among College Students. Journal Of School Violence ,11(1).

Thinkhouse (2015). Retrieved 19th Dec from

Social media and the Quantified Self.


Maybe it’s the company I keep online, but every day there seems to be more and more posts appearing on my timelines about health, fitness and wellbeing. On any given day, when I look at my timelines and newsfeeds, I note that many of my friends are sharing the fact that they are running (from jogging to marathons), doing crossfit, attending the gym or a personal trainer and eating healthily. It is true that some people in my social media echo chamber are “of a certain age” and because we are being constantly reminded of our mortality, have begun to take better care of ourselves. There is also the “algorithm” debate/conspiracy; that searches which I make influence the information which appears when I am on social media. But, let’s assume, for a minute, that my “Friends” list is a quasi representative sample; are people turning to tech and social media to help them with their health and wellbeing goals and, if they are, is there evidence to support this approach.

There are countless apps available (there are over 13,000 health-related apps in the Apple App Store, here are 39 of them! And yes, I know I said “countless”) which allow users to connect and track performance. There are applications which, along with providing health and medical information, present objective anatomical information. Even the most basic applications for mobile devices allow users to measure sleep, diet, exercise, weight, mood, medication and numerous bodily functions. Additionally, realising the importance of a motivational and support component to the process, quite a few of these applications have reward systems (badges, points or counters) and functionality where collected data can be shared on social media. These apps can be helpful for those trying to get into shape, with even simple smartphone apps helping to significantly increase physical activity (Glynn et al, 2014; Walsh et al, 2016). With the data the applications collect, workouts can be tracked, goals can be set and progress can be monitored. Health psychologists tell us that monitoring, planning and goal setting are all important factors in changing behaviours. Further, if users engage on the social level, interactions with friends can trigger action and the support received from others can help motivation (Ba & Wang, 2013).

Monitoring our health and maintaining healthy behaviour electronically is not new; we have been doing it since the 70’s. Developments and advancements in technology and the rise in popularity of social media, in the last decade, has created a new paradigm, though – the intersection between the Quantified Self and social media. It’s all well and good using apps and mobile devices to monitor and maintain behaviour, but when we go online, or when we interact with others, or click “Share” and our new, changing behaviour is proclaimed to our social circle, something different is happening. From my own limited experiences, participating in Twitter chats and “Liking” the Facebook page of my local Parkrun has already linked me to like-minded people; novice, amateur fun-runners. Getting updates on times, event information, and other runners has inspired and motivated me. Checking my timings, aiming to set a new “PB” and achieving that, has given me a sense of achievement and I feel good!

So far, research into the reasons why people use self-tracking digital devices for health is limited. Research into why people share their health, fitness and wellbeing information on social media, even more so. In the U.S. The Pew Research Center have found that 21% of the adults surveyed report monitoring their health (weight, diet, exercise, blood pressure or medical symptoms) using technology; a medical device (8%), app or tool on a mobile device (7%), computerised spread sheet (5%) and website or online tool (1%). Further, 20% of respondents had downloaded an app to a mobile device to manage and monitor their health behaviour (weight, diet and exercise). Eventhough a recent study  has found that wearing a device which monitors and provides feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches and may result in less weight loss over two years (Jakicic et al, 2016), benefits to wearing these devices  have been uncovered. It has been shown, for instance, that aside from the perceived usefulness of the equipment, self-regulation, social motives and enjoyment explain why some people use these trackers (Straiger et al, 2016).


It is likely that those who use this technology will, in some cases, share their information of social media; you are encouraged to do so. So far, social media is loaded with inspirational images. Pictures of fit, healthy, active, thin, attractive people running and training effortlessly, eating picture perfect meals abound. Motivational “before and after” stories appear regularly and, while much of this content is intended to inspire, it can have a negative effect. One can’t help but compare oneself to these “fitstagrammers” and, while it has been shown that “fitspiration” images have a positive effect on motivation to pursue healthy goals, these images can have a negative effect on body image (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015) and they can decrease body satisfaction (Benton & Karazsia, 2015). Moreover, Facebook social comparison has been negatively associated with subjective wellbeing (Gerson et al, 2016).


Like with most things to do with social media, it is early days, research is in its infancy, care needs to be taken and we need balance in our discussion around the subject. Care needs to be taken when taking inspiration from people online. As we discovered last year, with the Essena O’Neill saga, it is very easy to set up a blog or an Instagram account; near perfect pictures are easy to produce; it’s very easy to dispense advice; it’s very easy to make recommendations. It’s not so easy to qualify as a dietician, sports psychologist or for that matter, a mental health professional. And that Insta-Life may not be what it seems.

The intersection between technology, the quantified self and social media is exciting, though;  not just for users, but for research. Extant theories around reward, punishment, motivation, comparison, etc are going to be able to explain a lot, but research on this truly modern paradigm could also shed new light on human behavior.



Ba, S., & Wang, L. (2013). Digital health communities: The effect of their motivation mechanisms. Decision Support Systems, 55(4), 941-947.

Benton, C. & Karazsia, B. (2015). The effect of thin and muscular images on women’s body satisfaction. Body Image, 13(3), 22-27.

Gerson, J,. Plagnol, A., & Corr, P. Subjective well-being and social media use: Do personality traits moderate the impact of social comparison on Facebook? Computers in human behaviour, 63(10), 813-822.

Glynn, L., Hayes, P., Casey, M., Glynn, F., Alvarez-Iglesias, A., Newell, J., O’Laighin, G., Heaney, D., O’Donnell, M., Murphy, A. (2014). Effectiveness of a smartphone application to promote physical activity in primary care: the SMART MOVE randomised controlled trial. British Journal of General Practice, 64(624), 384-391.

Jakicic, J., Davis, K., Rogers, R., King, W., Marcus, M., Helsel, D., Rickman, A., Wahed, A., & Belle, S. (2016). Effect of Wearable Technology Combined With a Lifestyle Intervention on Long-term Weight Loss. The IDEA Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA, 316(11), 1161-1171.

Stragier, J., Vanden Abeele, M., Mechant, P., & De Marez, L. (2016). Understanding persistence in the use of Online Fitness Communities: Comparing novice and experienced users. Computers in Human Behavior, 64(11), 34-42.

Tiggemann, M. & Zaccardo, M. )2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body Image, 15(9), 61-67.

Walsh, J., Corbett, T., Hogan, M., Duggan, J., & McNamara, A. (2016). An mHealth Intervention Using a Smartphone App to Increase Walking Behavior in Young Adults: A Pilot Study. JMIR Mhealth Uhealth, 4(3), 109.

Active Vs. Passive Social Media Experiences

Given the inconsistency of findings arising from social media research, it is necessary at times, to take a step back and consider the different social media experiences which young people have. Much social media research simply requires participants, when undertaking research, to be members of a social media platform, to use “social media” or to have a social media profile. While gathering this data is useful, and correlating it to various outcomes informs , it tells us little of the social media experience and the nuances of user interactions with the media and other users. A young person can, for instance, be a member of Snapchat but, is she merely “snapping” or is she serious about her Snapchat game, applying filters and compiling “streaks”? One can be a member of Facebook without ever completing a “status update”, uploading photographs of one’s food or indeed, commenting on a friend’s post. Can’t one Instagram (Yes! I’m using it as a verb) to promote one’s blog or just to look at the pretty pictures?


Without examining outcomes of the interaction with specific social media platforms, it is clear that there are two key types of social media interaction; active and passive (Burke, Marlow & Lento, 2010). Active, directed social media use, or the production of content, has been described as the interaction on a site between a user and another friend. In this interaction, one friend identifies the other and communicates with them directly or posts a comments.  Active social media use could also include positing comments or “likes” to pages with which the user has no direct, intimate relationship. Active social media use can be imagined as purely communication for communication’s sake, or as it has been, as a means of identity expression, both self- and social- (Thorbjørnsen, Pedersen, & Nysveen, 2007). However, as young adult social media users maintain large networks of friends and acquaintances across multiple social media, direct, targeted communication is not always possible. Interactions are restricted to viewing aggregated status updates, tagged photos, snaps and posts. These interactions involve the consumption of content, exclusive of exchange and direct interaction.


Active social media use, in the form of one-to-one communication, has been implicated in reduced loneliness and depression (Shaw & Grant, 2002), it has predicted relationship strength (Gilbert & Karahalios, 2009) and using social network sites is a positive and significant predictor of people’s social capital and civic and political participatory behaviours, both online and offline (Gil de Zúñiga, Jung & Valenzuela, 2012). Active microblogging has been correlated with elevated student engagement and higher grades (Junco, Heiberger, & Loken, 2011). However, passive social media use, online behaviour that allows the user to consume and observe content or “lurk”, is the predominant social media activity, yet there is little research which differentiates this type of interaction from active social media use.


Concern is often expressed over the fact that young people are using social media increasingly and in increasing numbers. And while research tells us that usage has an effect and that, at times, these effects can be detrimental to our well being, research does not tell us whether this use or whether these effects emerge from dynamic exchanges and direct communication or from passive observation and the reaction to what we observe. Actively interacting and communicating on social media has to have a completely different outcome than passively allowing content to wash over us. It is therefore important that, when looking at social media research or when reading about the effects of social media use on young people, that we scrutinise the nature of the interaction. Further, results which emerge from research  which does not reveal the type of interaction, is weakened.



Burke, M., Marlow, C., & Lento, T. (2010). Social network activity and social well-being. Paper presented at the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, Atlanta, GA, USA.

Gilbert, E. & Karahalios, K. (2009). Predicting tie strength with social media. Proceedings of the 27th international conference on Human factors in computing systems, 211–220.

Gil de Zúñiga, H., Jung, N. & Valenzuela, S. (2012). Social Media Use for News and Individuals’ Social Capital, Civic Engagement and Political Participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 17, 319–336.

Junco, R., Heiberger, G. and Loken, E. (2011). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 119–132.

Shaw, L. & Gant, L. (2002). In defence of the Internet: The relationship between Internet communication and depression, loneliness, self-esteem, and perceived social support. CyberPsychology & Behavior 5(2), 157-172.

Thorbjørnsen, H.,Pedersen, P., & Nysveen, H. (2007). “This is who I am”: Identity expressiveness and the theory of planned behavior. Psychology & Marketing, 24, 763–785.

The neuroscience of social media

Globally, there are over two billion users of social media. With increasing access to the internet in emerging countries and the push by internet service provider to capture these new markets, it is likely that this figure will increase exponentially in the coming years. Already, internet use and smartphone ownership rates in these countries is rapidly increasing. With increased access to web services, in the industrialised west, social media is reaching saturation point, with over 76% of internet users across forty countries using social media (Pew Research, 2016). In Ireland, smartphone ownership among young adults has reached 98%, with 98% of these using social media through internet enabled devices.

Given how pervasive social media has become, it is unsurprising that this area has piqued the interest to researchers and academics. Within the last decade over 10,000 journal articles have been published on the subject (Meshi, Tamir, Heekeren, 2015). Interestingly, in this nascent, complex area of study, research has a narrow focus. Investigators concentrate on a phenomenon of interest, gauge the level of social media use or membership of a social networking site and draw correlations between the two. Studies of this nature, say linking social media use or membership of Facebook, to types of personality or to various emotional or behavioural responses proliferate, along with the widespread use of self-report questionnaire as the means of measurement.


Despite the fact that the “big picture” has not been examined in any great depth, fractured research of this nature makes it difficult to discern the wood from the trees. Studies reveal numerous contradictions and without a framework to guide research, results of social media studies will continue to confound.

Notwithstanding the amount of research which is being and has been conducted into social media, one area of research has received little attention; an area which could help to explain some of the cognitive processes involved in the social media experiences and indeed, the neural systems underpinning these processes. When fully embraced, this are of research will undoubtedly provide nuance to our burgeoning understanding of our social media experiences. Already, biological-social media studies have produced some intriguing findings.

It is, as yet, unclear as to why levels of participation among social media users vary. However, a possible biological basis for this variability has been uncovered using fMRI. Kanai, Bahrami, Roylance & Rees (2012) have discovered that quantitative differences in the number of friends one has on Facebook predict grey matter density in the right superior temporal sulcus, the left middle temporal gyrus and the entorhinal cortex. Further, voxel-based morphometry has shown that lonely individuals have less gray matter in the left posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS: Kanai, Bahrami, Duchaine, Janik, Banissy, & Rees, 2012). These regions of the brain have previously been implicated in perception and associative memory. Kanai et al also discovered a correlation between grey matter density of the amygdala and online and offline social network size. Notably, Von der Heide, Vyas & Olsen (2014) have shown, across fMRI analyses, that individual differences in social network size were consistently related to structural and functional differences in the left and right amygdala, and the right entorhinal/ventral anterior temporal cortex. These findings have led the authors to surmise that the size of participant’s online social network is closely linked to regions of the brain implicated in social cognition.


As social media is often characterised as a means by which we manage our reputations and the impressions we make on others, researchers have examined whether positive social, self-relevant feedback, concerning one’s character, is linked with the neural processing of gains in ventral striatum (Meshi, Morawetz, & Heekeren, 2013). These researchers hypothesized a relationship between the way the brain processes self-relevant gains in reputation and one’s degree of Facebook use. fMRI data was recorded while participants received gains in reputation and it was found that when participants responded to gains in reputation, reward-related activity in the left nucleus accumbens predicted Facebook use. Further analysis showed that Facebook use primarily explained nucleus accumbens activity.

Finally, and as “Facebook Addiction” seems to be an issue concerning parents and certainly the media, a study by Turel, He, Xue, Xiao & Bechara (2014) sheds new light on this very modern phenomenon. Previous studies into addictive behaviours have shown that these behaviours violate the homeostasis of impulsive (amygdala-striatal) and inhibitory (prefrontal cortex) brain systems. Turel et al examined whether these systems sub-serve Facebook “addiction”. Interestingly, the addiction-like symptoms of technology-related “addictions” share some neural features with substance and gambling addictions. Significantly, however, they also differ from such addictions in both their brain etiology and possibly pathogenesis, as related to abnormal functioning of the inhibitory-control brain system.

The studies represent the very few which examine neural correlates of social media use; this important area of research is very much in its infancy. As we learn more about the antecedents and consequence of  social media use, and as we gain a more holistic picture of our social media experience, it is also important that we understand the effects that regular social media use could be having on our behavioural and neural development, and functioning. While we should be cautious interpreting the results of studies like these, the significance of this research is particularly relevant to the development of adolescents and young adults who use this technology regularly and have transitioned through developmental milestones in the company of social media. It is the explicit intention of social media developers to encourage us to spend more and more time engaged with this technology, so it is essential that we understand the differences and changes, if there are any, in the social media user’s functioning.

A word of caution

There is confusion as to what neuroscience tells us about awareness and behaviour. Neuroscience doesn’t provide a satisfactory account of the conditions that are sufficient for awareness and behaviour and a neuroscientific explanation of these phenomena and how they arise, is incomplete. The idea that neuroscience accounts for these phenomena is neuroscientism.

The studies mentioned in this essay give us a snapshot of the brains of the participants. It would be an error to extrapolate behaviour, awareness, consciousness, intelligence, emotion etc. from an fMRI image or indeed, from a researcher’s interpretation of that image. Further, it would be incorrect to assume cause and effect.



Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Roylance, R., & Rees, G. (2012)   Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure. Proceeding. Biological Science. The Royal Society, 7(279), 1327-34.

Kanai, R., Bahrami, B., Duchaine, B., Janik, A., Banissy, M. J., & Rees, G. (2012). Brain Structure Links Loneliness to Social Perception. Current Biology,22(20), 1975–1979.

Meshi, D., Morawetz, C., & Heekeren, H. (2013). Nucleus accumbens response to gains in reputation for the self relative to gains for others predicts social media use. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 29(7), 439.

Meshi, D., Tamir, D., & Heekeren, H. (2015). The Emerging Neuroscience of Social Media. Trends in Cognitive Science,19(12), 771-82.

Pew Research. (2016, May 18). Retrieved from

Turel, O., He, Q., Xue, G., Xiao, L., & Bechara, A. (2014). Examination of neural systems sub-serving Facebook “addiction”. Psychological Reports, 115(3), 675-695.

Von der Heide, R., Vyas, G., & Olson, I. (2014). The social network-network: size is predicted by brain structure and function in the amygdala and paralimbic regions. Social Cognitive and Affective Neiroscience, 9(12), 1962-1972.