Category: technology

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.

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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.

FoMO and the “wished for” life

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I have been thinking recently about the nature of FoMO and its relationship to frustration.

At the heart of it, frustration lies between what we have and what we don’t have; between the life we are living and the life we want to live. There is a dissonance between our real world and our imagined worlds and I am wondering whether it is possible that it is this discrepancy which causes the negative consequences which we have discovered in our research (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-one-lifespan/201510/facebook-and-the-fear-missing-out-fomo).

In this modern, digitized world it seems that we are constantly stalked by potential, choices and options for a better life; the possibilities are endless and our perfect self is just a tap or a swipe away. But, as is more often the case, our actual life gets in the way and we are frustrated. Social media, and particularly Facebook, displays in living colour, an illusion of the possible, what we need to satisfy the incongruity and what would undoubtedly give us pleasure. Somewhere, right in our hands or on our computer, there is a potential life where our needs are being met, where our “wished for” life is playing out.

FoMO, by definition, is a feeling of apprehension one feels when one sees, on social media, that others are enjoying an experience from which one is absent. Could it be that these experiences are the unmet needs of our “wished for” life and that this absence is what produces the range of emotions, the jealousy, the judgement, the disconnection which we have uncovered?

On the other hand, isn’t our “wished for” life important? Does it not inform the life we live? Without it, where would ambition, determination, hope and courage spring from? It is in the mire of the discord between the actual and the imagined that we see beauty, that we recognise potential and that we prepare for action. Frustration at not living our “wished for” life, whether it arises externally (our social world or the environment) or internally (our personal deficiencies), shows us what we want, what will give us pleasure; this frustration can be inspirational.