Category: social media

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.

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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.

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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.

 

References

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 http://www.pewglobal.org/2016/02/22/smartphone-ownership-and-internet-usage-continues-to-climb-in-emerging-economies/

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.

Could “Loneliness” be the solution to the Facebook migration problem?

In a previous post I spoke about the fact that some young users are migrating from Facebook to different types of social media. This news comes as no surprise to analysts or indeed young  social media users. The fact users are migrating in such numbers (see below) has even prompted one analyst to opine that “Facebook appears to already be moving past the maturity stage into the decline stage” (Gunelius, 2015)…steady on!!!

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I have been wondering about the possible causes for this migration and have thought that maybe, privacy, permanence or parents could be the problem. But maybe it’s something else. Could it also be that the thoughts, feelings and behaviours which result from our use of Facebook are encouraging us to seek reward elsewhere?

In our research on the negative consequences of FoMO we have found that, among other negative consequences, loneliness emerges as a significant negative outcome. At its most basic, loneliness is sadness associated with being isolated, removed from intimates, being abandoned or rejected. Given these types of descriptors, it is hard to imagine that a negative consequence of one’s social media experiences is “loneliness”, considering that one is just a click away from friends and family and that, in the main, very few of them reject or abandon the user.

Perhaps another definition for “loneliness” or an investigation into the causes and correlates of loneliness would shed light on why some social media users describe their experience this way.

Loneliness or perceived isolation can be viewed either as a single entity or a multifaceted conceptualisation of the emotional reactions to the absence of others. It is a temporary state for some, but a chronic condition for others. While temporary loneliness can be buffered by social support, the chronically lonely are more likely to be high in negative affect and low in positive affect, withdrawing socially and displaying a lack of trust in others (Ernst & Cacioppo, 1999). Furthermore, chronic loneliness has been associated with depression and hostility.

Kraus et al (1993) see loneliness as a direct consequence of our cognitive appraisals (determined by one’s social network, situation and person factors) of whether interpersonal needs are being met. Studies have shown that numerous “person” factors, including pessimism and low optimism, correlate with loneliness, which in turn has been strongly correlated with low happiness (Booth, Bartlett, & Bohnsack, 1992) and low life satisfaction (Riggio, Warring, & Trockmorton, 1993). Damsteegt (1992) suggested that lonely individuals display feelings of alienation, isolation and bitterness, and that these feelings combine to form poor social networks. Additionally, Krauss et al. (1993) propose that, for interpersonal needs to be met successfully, social provisions of attachment, reassurance of worth, social integration, guidance and reliable alliances have to be satisfied.  It may be that Granovetter’ s (1982) “weak ties”, provided by Facebook, are not quite meeting these requirement or satisfying users interpersonal needs.

When our participants described “loneliness” as an outcome of their social media experiences, I would guess that they were describing a more transient and impermanent state. If this is the case, ironically, the social support provided by social media can buffer against these feelings. Indeed, Kim et al (2015) have shown that loneliness can be a cause and a consequence of social media use.

Over the last few years active Facebook use has declined (falling by 9% in 2014), with social media users migrating to platforms (Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Youtube etc) where they can actively share content with closed groups. Could young users be avoiding loneliness or looking to alleviate it elsewhere? On these newer platforms, social provisions are being met and communication occurs between attached, integrated and reliable groups. These strong, closed, intimate groups assure and reward and our interpersonal needs are being met.

If Facebook are to stem the migration, addressing loneliness could be the place to start.

20 Questions About “Listicles” – Opinion

Research has shown, time and again, that social media provides users with an ideal platform for self- and identity- expression. This expression can be explicit – sharing  information about ourselves and our lives – or implicit, where  we share links or content which alludes to who we are. In the last few days, for example, I have shared a link to a change.org petition asking the Irish government to prioritise mental health spending as a matter of urgency and a quote from Blade Runner.  These posts says something about me and what I believe and, to a certain extent, allow me to tell my community what is important in my life.

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Identity-expression, a core function of social media, has not gone unnoticed by content providers, who live and breathe on clicks and recently, the popularity and importance of implicit forms of self-expression have led to a flood of articles which are specifically designed to be shared. With the arrival of the “listicle” (short-form articles delivered in the form of numbered lists), pre-packaged, bite-sized facets of the self are now available to social media users to be share with “friends”. These sharable, clickable aspects of the self are just detailed enough to say something about  the user and broad enough to go viral. A friend of mine recently shared a listicle from Buzzfeed which lists 23 things only women with big boobs understand : suitably specific and suitably broad.

In the main, these listicles follow the same formula and build to the same crescendo: Ugh! Isn’t it awful when you (insert problem here), and then you (other problem associated with the thing we are talking about). Then there are all the times people don’t understand (other aspect of whattsit) and they make fun of you for being (d’ya know….we know…we understand…we care)…and you make fun of THEM…but, at the end of the day, you (and everyone who has this thing that quite a lot of people have) are tremendous and it’s not so bad!!

“Like”…click…”Share”…click…

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Don’t we all want to tell people that we are tremendous? That, despite our foibles, even Buzzfeed, Cosmo and the Huffington Post think we’re great! There’s nothing wrong with telling our social media community that we also belong to another community and that we are proud of them! It’s fun, there’s nothing wrong with that….surely?

When it comes to content providers like Buzzfeed et al distributing identity based list articles centered on mental health, I think there’s a problem. Yes, it is true that these articles raise awareness of issues like anxiety and depression, but there is a potential downside. Perhaps I am taking these pieces too seriously. Perhaps they are meant as fluff; something to help you through the day, or  just diversion. But isn’t there a danger inherent in allowing Huff Post staff the ability to list diagnostic criteria that are loosely based on actual diagnostic criteria? I am sure they are lovely people, but I am not sure about their professional qualifications. Is there not also a danger that, rather than suffering from anxiety or depression, the “sharer” is just feeling a little low or anxious? While posting these listicles may be therapeutic, is there not a danger that the “sharee” may see it as attention seeking or because the content comes from Buzzfeed, that it is not serious content?

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It is true that talking about and sharing your thoughts and worries with friends is empowering, but couldn’t it also be said that sharing a Buzzfeed list trivialises actual illnesses that can only be diagnosed by professionals? When these listicles take the format mentioned above, can’t they make an illness sound almost romantic; they certainly make the illness sound “liveable” and make us think that the sufferer is powering through…ladies with big boobs ROCK cocktail dresses, apparently, people with depression are super intelligent…introverts love great literature…everything is awesome. What is even more worrying though, is that the criteria for actual illnesses are being unofficially broadened and this could lead to people misunderstanding serious conditions.

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In the pursuit of “clicks”, listicles are efficient and successful; that’s why there are so many of them. We share these lists to express our identity, to share intimate details of our selves in an acceptable format and, we like to think that our online community understand and support us. However, when it comes to complex issues like mental health or physical appearance, there are better ways to share this information, “clicks” might not be enough.

Types of social media: Similarities and differences.

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Social media (collective noun) describes online communications outlets which allow input, interaction, content-sharing and collaboration to a shared community. Social media come in many forms, but most allow the formation of online communities, the sharing of information, and the distribution of ideas, opinions, messages and videos. The social media landscape shifts rapidly and, what could be a “go to” social media platform today, could be a nostalgic memory tomorrow. The following are some currently available types of social media.

Social Network Sites – The most common definition of social network sites (SNS) comes from Boyd & Ellison (2007), who describe them as, “web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system”. These web services generally consist of a profile, allow users to interact with each other and afford connections to others with whom the user has a shared connection. Popular examples include Facebook and LinkedIn.

Media Sharing – Media sharing applications allow users to upload and share media e.g. pictures, video, etc. Most media sharing platforms now have social networking features like profiles, commenting, etc. The most popular are YouTube, Instagram (10 million members in 2011, 400 million in Sept 2015) and Flickr.

Microblog – Microblogs like Twitter and Tumblr let users post short updates to other microblog members who subscribe to receive updates. With many of the 111 microblogs (Yes! Really!) in existence, message length is restricted, but members can post other elements of content, such as pictures, video and links to websites.

Bookmarking Sites – Probably not as popular as they  once were, Bookmarking sites allow users to save and manage links to other websites and resources on the internet. Most allow you to “tag” your links, making them easy to search and share. The most popular are StumbleUpon, Pocket and Delicious

Social News – Social news sites let users post news items or links to outside articles and allow users to “vote” on the items. Voting is the central feature and items that get the most votes are most prominently presented on the sites. So, the community decides which news items get seen. The most popular are Digg, Reddit and Propeller.

Blogs and Forums – The numerous online forums allow members to post content and hold conversations by posting messages. Blog comments are similar except they are attached to blogs and usually the discussion centres around the topic of the blog post. There are many, MANY popular blogs and forums.

Anonymous & Disappearing – With the arrival of social media smartphone apps like Snapchat and Yik-Yak, the privacy concerns of younger social media users, are answered. It is now possible to make content available to closed, private communities, safe in the knowledge that they, and only they, will see it and that it will disappear, once seen. With anonymous smartphone apps (Yik-Yak, Whisper, Nearby, etc) it is possible for users to anonymously view, create, up/down vote discussion threads with other anonymous users in close proximity.

There is a trend for many content providers to include social media affordances, so it true to say that there is considerable overlap between these “categories” of social media types; Facebook allow microblogging in the form of “status updates”; Youtube allow commenting on videos; WhatsApp allows the formation of private groups and content sharing; Tinder and Grindr integrate Facebook and Instagram profile information.

This is by no means a comprehensive list; I have excluded document sharing (Dropbox, Google Drive) and Voip (Skype) media which people use to communicate and share information…the lines are blurred. I will add to to this list as new means of communication and interaction emerge. It will be fascinating, for example, to see how social media, VR and/or wearable technology combine to provide us with new ways to relate to each other and the world around us.

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Do “Comments” sections influence us?

The importance of understanding social media experiences was brought home to me this morning. Scanning through my Twitter feed, I saw a post by PsyPost which said that “Online comment sections may influence readers’ opinions on health issues”

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The article outlined a study conducted by Witteman et al., where participants were asked to carefully read the “Comments” section of a mock article, posted to social media. Some participants read positive comments which were unanimously in favour of the subject matter, while others read negative comments, in opposition to the proposal of the article. A third group read a balanced “comments” section and the final group read an article without comments. Participants were then asked to rate their opinion of the article on a scale 1-100. Despite the fact that the participants had read the same article, researchers found that opinions were influenced by the bias expressed in the “Comments” section. Participants who viewed balanced comments or the article without comments expressed a balanced opinion (52), while the average opinion for the negative comments group was 39 and the average opinion for the positive comments group was 63.

 

Social media, in allowing access to information and allowing users the ability to interact with content and express opinion, is important. Information searching and sharing, particularly health information, is a truly valuable facet of our social media experience and engaging with this information is a good thing. Our Social Media Experience is enhanced by this interactivity. However, given that some of us spend, on average almost three hours per day on social media, interacting with friends and consuming content, these findings reinforce the need for social media content moderators. More research is needed here and this study and its findings need replication, but this research exposes a possible threat. It is possible that, if the content of what British comedian Dave Gorman calls “the bottom half of the internet”, is biased or one-sided and if content providers allow polarised opinions to dominate, social media user perceptions can be influenced.

 

Organisations should be allowed to communicate with us and we should be allowed to communicate with them. I should be allowed to express my opinions, but it is also important and reasonable to expect that organisations ensure opinions which oppose mine be expressed. In the absence of this, content providers have a responsibility to ensure that the nuance of opinion expressed in “Comments” sections, is explained. Without this balance or these explanations, “those who shout loudest get heard first” and a vocal group can influence, not only perceptions, but perhaps policy.

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Farewell Facebook?

Everything I know about social media is grounded in what I see my kids doing on line. My initial enquiries into SNS, my fascination with FOMO and my obsession with social media experiences started with me observing how my kids and their friends interacted with Bebo and Facebook and how they interacted with each other. These were the crossover generation; the generation between “digital immigrants” like myself and the “digital natives” who had grown up completely immersed in technology. For them, Facebook (R.I.P. Bebo) had become an indispensable part of life and communication using this new tech, had become seamless. A gentle revolution in communication had occurred, and now, with the proliferation of mobile devices, this revolution would now seem complete. Smart device ownership among young adults has almost reached saturation point and engagement with on-line platforms is an integral part of the lives of young adults.

While this revolution was going on, Facebook, being the only show in town, dominated. It was the platform where everything happened, where we had our social media experiences. It was not unusual for us to see groups of young people sitting around, all glued to handheld devices, laughing, whispering, pointing, blushing and sharing the intimacies of their lives with their community. Nor was it unusual for young people to spend a large amount of time on Facebook. Parents, teachers, the media and academia all became interested in this new phenomenon and studies highlighting the dangers and negative consequences of Facebook proliferated.

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All the while though, away from our gaze, young people have been quietly rebelling, as is their wont, and another revolution was taking place. While grown-ups were becoming more vigilant as to the dangers of Facebook, younger adults were migrating away from “traditional”, overt social media and were interacting with each other on new, more private media. Today, data suggests that, where young users shared information on highly visible, permanent platforms (Facebook, Pintrest, Instagram etc.) in the past, they are quietly transferring their allegiances to more invisible, temporary applications (Snapchat, Yik-Yak, KiK) and group chat (Messenger, iMessage and WhatsApp). Now, instead of posting updates to the multitude, they are sharing minute-by-minute and through filtered selfies, to a closer circle of friends.

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Last August, Pew Research Centre, in the U.S., found that 49% of smartphone users (18-29) used   messaging apps and 41% used apps that automatically delete sent messages. In a study by Edison Research and Triton Digital in March 2016, it was found that 72% of respondents aged 12-24 said they currently use Snapchat, up from 57% last year. Among this demographic, Snapchat has now surpassed Instagram usage, which itself has grown from 59% to 66%. According to another Pew study, 37% of people in that age range use Pinterest, 22% use LinkedIn, and 32% use Twitter. These figures would suggest that messaging is a more important form of publicly accessible social media for this age group. That said, 82% of people aged 18-29 said that they have a Facebook account, but I am suggesting that having an account is not the same as using an account, in the traditional sense. I’m suggesting, based on anecdotal evidence, that young users are now checking their Facebook accounts to see what others are posting, rather than creating content; photosharing, commenting, disliking and liking happen increasingly in closed, private, impermanent spaces, like Snapchat.

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There is little or no research, as yet, as to why young people are making this move. If I was to hazard a guess, I imagine the permanence of Facebook posts, that parents and indeed grandparents have Facebook profiles, and the fact that future employers, law enforcement and banks are examining Facebook profiles, would explain the attraction towards more ephemeral, personal modes of on-line communication.

Social media studies: A new approach?

We live in an age of unprecedented intimacy with computer technology. Aside from computers at school, at work and at home, an increasing number of us are tethered to omnipresent smart devices. This is certainly true for the current cohort of young adults. In the U.S., in 2014, 85% of young people aged 18-24 owned smart devices (Nielsen, 2016), while in Ireland, RedC reported in 2012, that 65% of the emerging adults owned a smart phone (RedC, 2016); by 2014 this had increased to 85% (Thinkhouse, 2015). It is estimated that young Irish internet users spend up to six hours per day connected to devices (IPSOS/MRBI, 2014), with three hours spent social networking. And “we are not alone”. According to GlobalWebIndex, in 2014, the average global user spent more than 6 hours online, compared to 5.5 hours in 2012; almost 2 hours were spent on social networking compared to just 1.5 in 2012.
How do you spend 2 hours a day on social media? Well, it was found that, in the U.K., young people perform “checking behaviours” on smart devices up to 85 times per day (Andrews et al, 2015). That’s a start.

Research into young adults and their use of social media paints a partial and fragmented picture. Studies generally correlate social media use with outcomes such as self-esteem (Valkenburg & Peter, 2011), grade point average (Kirschner & Karpinski, 2010), emotions (Bevan, Pfyl, & Barclay, 2012), mood (Sagioglu & Greitemeyer, 2014), life satisfaction (Krasnova, Wenninger, Widjaja, & Bruxmann, 2013), social comparison (de Vries & Kühne, 2015) etc. Researchers reveal a host of undesirable social, emotional and behavioural consequences; decreased motivation (Flanigan & Babchuk, 2015), poor academic performance and psychosocial maladjustment (Cerretani, Iturrioz, & Garay, 2016), envy and depression (Appel, Gerlach, & Crusuis, 2016), body surveillance and appearance comparisons (Tiggemann & Slater, 2013), and cyberbullying (Gahagan, Vaterlaus, & Frost, 2016). That said, social media has also been shown to have positive consequences for the user; positive psychological and physiological experiences (Mauri et al, 2011), belongingness (Nadkarni & Hofmann , 2012), relationship formation and maintenance (Ellison et al, 2007), enhancing self-esteem (Gonzales & Hancock, 2011), reaffirming social bonds (Knowles et al, 2015), and socialisation functions (Barker & White, 2010), have all been related to social media use.

Important and all as these findings are though (and they are), it has been argued that the scope of this research is limited, that gaps exist in the current understanding, and with new platforms appearing regularly, with changing features and design, more integrated research examining the positive and negative consequences of social media use is required (Caers et al, 2013). Moreover, there have been calls for research that provides a coherent understanding of the drivers and the positive consequences of social media use; research which explores how “social media experiences” stimulate, help young people establish and maintain relationships or provide optimism (Finkelhor, 2014). Given the levels of engagement and immersion, and given that we have only gained an incomplete, disjointed understanding of the consequences of the social media experience, it is vitally important, particularly for young people and their development, that we gain a complete understanding of the broad range of positive and negative, social, emotional and behavioural outcomes of use.

Studies in the social media arena reveal a clear picture of the assumptions made by researchers. Research tends to be survey based, cross-sectional, conveniently sampled and correlational. Concepts, constructs and definitions are driven by adult researchers with limited knowledge of the lived experience, and whose interests do not necessarily coincide with those of the user. Participants, by virtue of having been born between certain dates are assumed to be “digital natives”(Prensky, 2001); uniformly familiar with, reliant on and immersed in internet technology. Simply being a member of a social networking site but not knowledge of what features of the site one is using, is enough to qualify one for inclusion in studies. Interestingly, comparisons between users and non-users are rarely, if ever, made. The list goes on! And these shortcomings have consequences.

Cohen (1972), said that “moral panic” occurs when a group in society is portrayed in the media as representing a threat to the norms, practices and values of society. The behaviour of this subgroup is sensationalised and magnified by its portrayal in the media. Public discourse around the behaviour is driven by the media, without regard to the actual “panic” being experienced, or evidence to support the phenomenon. Indeed, since this definition was offered, a new and worrying trend has emerged; sensationalist interpretations and dissemination of scientific or pseudoscientific findings by popular press. In this regard, the negative effects of social media use by young people is well publicised, with articles, based on findings like those mentioned above, appearing almost daily in mainstream media warning of the dangers of use, of excessive use, of “addiction” or of particular platforms.

Technological ingenuity and its evolution increasingly effects how we interact with each other, and as a collective. The social, emotional, behavioural and broader cultural consequences are just beginning to be felt. With our increased engagement with and exposure to platforms and their content, digital media is changing us, individually and organisationally, and young people are at the vanguard of that change. On-line surveys and correlations are no longer good enough, nor is it good enough for us to assume that all young people are “digital natives”. It is now time that research exploring the new hyper-connected landscape and its inhabitants reflected these changes.

To situate research findings in the world of the user, cognisant of the fact that she is using dynamic, evolving media, in a socially connected environment, novel research methods are required. First though, we need to examine the assumptions underpinning young people and their status as “digital natives”. Is mere membership of a social networking community enough to draw conclusions about the psychological state of the user? Secondly, I would argue that we need contextual, user-defined examinations, combined with research and theory, to provide us with accurate information. It is no longer adequate to correlate the use of social media with complex psychological constructs using online, self-report surveys; publication of this type of research is misleading. Certainly, 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.

What of “Good” FoMO?

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Teens connected to social media more frequently (five or more times a day, i.e. heavy users) are significantly more likely to experience aspects of FoMO such as:

• It is important that I understand my friends in-jokes (78%);
• Fearing their friends are having more rewarding experiences than them (54%);
• Worrying when they find out their friends are having fun without them (60%); and
• Being bothered when they miss out on planned get-togethers (63%).

The Australian Psychological Society has just released the key findings of its 2015 Stress and Wellbeing survey. The survey examined how 1,500 Aussies experience and cope with stress. This publication is notable, in that it includes for the first time measurements of social media use and FoMO.
The survey came to my attention when I did a quick Google search for the term “FoMO Australia” – I’m weird like that. I was greeted with headlines like “#FOMO leading to higher levels of depression, anxiety for heavy social media users”, “Wellbeing survey reveals nearly half of teens stressed by social media” and “FoMO sending kids loco” (this final article made the most incredible associations to online gambling, internet addiction, alcoholism and drug use – the survey doesn’t mention these terms, by the way).

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I’ve posted the key findings of the survey, with regard to teenagers, above – these are the findings which seem to be raising the most alarm in the Australian media – but one must bear in mind that the total number of teenagers in the survey was 210. That said, according to the survey, 25% of those surveyed admitted that they were “constantly online” and 56% of teenagers were deemed “heavy users” due to the fact that they interacted with social media more than five times per day. These figures would seem to tally with survey results of a Pew Research Centre study in April of this year, where it was found that, because of the convenience of mobile technology, 92% of teenagers go online daily, 56% of teens (13-17) are online several times a day and 24% of those are online “almost constantly”.
In 2010, a national study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan organisation found that young Americans, between 8 and 18, spent on average 7 ½ hrs across the day using electronic devices. This excluded the time spent talking and texting. In this study, when media multi tasking was taken into account, the researchers claimed that the sample were cramming 11 hrs of content into the 7 ½ hours. Internet users in Ireland spend, on average, nearly 4 hours a day on our computers and an average of almost 2 hours per day connected via mobile devices, so our usage rates would be similar to those in the US.
But, what do these figures really tell us? It is truly overly simplistic to use time spent doing something as a metric for addiction or as an antecedent to alcohol and drug use? Even the American Academy of Paediatrics, who used to recommend 1-2 hours of screen time per day, for teens, now propose more reasonable, understanding and complete guidelines for kids who are “growing up digital”. (https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Children-And-Media-Tips-For-Parents.aspx)
I think that we need to re-examine how we are measuring how young people interact with technology; we need to stop measuring time spent online, for a start. Further, we need to stop arguing over whether time spent on line is good or bad, it is the environment that young people inhabit. What does measuring the time spent in our natural habitat tell us? Not much, I would argue. The fact that someone uses Facebook, while informative from a marketing perspective, does little to explain the subtleties of the users interaction; the content and context of the users communication and the user-defined, significant behavioural, emotional and cognitive outcomes of that interaction and the possible interrelations between these. Furthermore, and I’m not the first to say it, but allowing journalists to interpret scientific data and allowing them to publish sensational headlines on the back of these misguided interpretations is doing no one any favours.
There are 1.5 billion Facebook users and they’re not all having a bad time. I argue that FoMO can be a good thing. In fact, I have found in my research that Facebook use in the context of FoMO promotes awareness, affection, efficacy, truthfulness, support, certainty and that these drivers of “good” FoMO further promote generosity, patience and positive regard for the needs and opinions of others. FoMO can aggravate altruism and prosocial behaviour, it can empower, it can develop, enhance and maintain relationships. So, FoMO taps into our innate need for connection, contact and community. It stimulates reciprocity and enhances the positive regard we have for others.

dark side
Let’s have another look at those key findings above and think about them positively. It is important for young people (and us all, for that matter) to understand in-jokes, aren’t we all “bothered” if we miss out on a planned get-together and don’t we all worry that others are having fun without us? As I sit here, I KNOW that others are having more rewarding experiences than me….it is worrying. Isn’t that what it is to be human? Is it sending us “loco”? I don’t think so.

Facebook and Adaptation?

There are a myriad of reasons behind our use of social media; we inform and are informed, we present ourselves and we scrutinise the presentations of others, and, importantly, we make and maintain reciprocal and unidirectional connections with others.

sn
From an evolutionary perspective, it could be said that, in managing our online reputations, we gain adaptive advantages. In fact, belonging to a social grouping is, at times, as important as our need for food, shelter and sex. Within the protective pod, herd or tribe our chances of survival and reproductive success increase. Our social support network buffers against depression and anxiety and, indeed, connection to the group has been shown to not only bolster survival, but increase thriving. Long before the advent of social media, we ‘liked’ and ‘friended’ people. So, it could be argued that Facebook just takes advantage of our innate, primordial need for the social.

evolution
In 1992, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, suggested that neocortical processing capacity limited the number of people with whom we could maintain inter-personal relationships. In other words, with the limited cognitive processing power of our puny brains, we had to limit the size of our social networks. By examining the size of the social networks of apes and measuring the size of their brains, Dunbar proposed that because of our big old brains we could maintain stable social networks of 148 warm bodies, rounded up to 150…..voilà, “The Dunbar Number”.

[Update 080216: Dunbar et al, 2015 examined Facebook and Twitter data-sets and confirmed that sizes of networks and mean frequencies of contact closely match observed values from offline networks. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378873315000313%5D

Not everyone agrees with the good doctors’ theory, with researchers at Harvard, for example, finding that even prolific socialisers often only have a small group of friends with whom they can discuss important matters. Bernard and Killworth of “small world” fame, have put forward estimates which almost double the “Dunbar Number” (290) and some sociologists make a distinction between one’s social “core” and our wider social network.

At a recent lecture, about 200 first year psychology students were asked, by show of hands (scientific?), how many friends each had on Facebook. The average participant, in this rigorous study, admitted to having between 300 and 400; some, at the tail-end of the graph admitting to numbers exceeding 500. Aside from this study (dripping with scientific rigour), there is little doubt that Facebook increases the size of our social network, but this makes sense if we think of Dunbar’s hypothesis…acquiring new “friends” online is cognitively frictionless and maintaining Facebook Connectedness (Grieve et al, 2013) is mentally, almost, free of charge.

Interestingly, Cameron Marlow and his associates, at Facebook, have found that, on average, the number of “friends” in a social network is…wait for it…calling Dr. Dunbar….120! More interestingly still, the authors found that Facebook users usually interact with a small, stable group. Corroborating what the researchers at Harvard had found, that generally, men with 120 friends actively interact with 7 people and women interact with 10. And what about those who have 500 Facebook friends? Well, the men leave comments for 17 friends, women for 26, men communicate with 10 people, and women with 16. So, our active, core social network remains small and stable, but it seems that we passively track a much larger, but casual system of social relations.

So, when we post content to Facebook are we not being extraordinarily adaptive? Are we not moving beyond our small, stable “core”? Are we not advertising our wares outside our “Dunbar Number”? Have we not evolved and become fitter and more efficient? Our ancestors had to work considerably harder than us, physically and mentally, to maintain relationships, but in our digitised world, metaphorically picking fleas out of our friends fur takes a little bit less mental computation.
Grieve, R., Indian, M., Witteveen, K., Tolan, G., & Marrington, J. (2013). Face-to-face or Facebook: Can social connectedness be derived online? Computers in human behaviour, 29, 3. 604-609.
Carl Bialik (16 November 2007). “Sorry, You May Have Gone Over Your Limit Of Network Friends”. The Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved 13th Nov 2015.