Tag: behaviour

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.

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.

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.

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.

Something new and shiny: The dynamic social network.


We are, by our nature, social actors who participate actively and, to some extent, passively in relational systems which are connected to each other. These related social systems operate in various contexts (micro- and macro-level), in time and space and in patterns of relations containing differing content and differing characteristics. Our behaviour, perceptions, beliefs, actions, decisions and our experience influence and are influenced by the other actors in our relational structures.
Relational structures can be simple dyadic relations between one person and another, but more often than not they can form more complex clusters. Relations can be stable or transitory, unidirectional or reciprocal, but, no matter how simple or complex, these structures allow for the exchange of information, the flow of knowledge, the creation and maintenance of interests and the sharing of identities, values and norms.
Within these social, relational structures, communication is a most vital component. We communicate with the other actors in relational structures from birth and, over time and with experience, this communication becomes effortless and seamless. We touch, we speak, we listen, we make eye contact and we are aware of the presence of those in our relational systems; these interactions, these communication tools are inbred and innate. Not only this, but because of our early adoption of these tools, we have become acclimatised to exposure and the interactions can, in the main be anticipated and predictable. I know, for instance, that my mother will compliment me, but immediately temper the compliment with an admonishment; I will not be shocked.
Of late, the omnipresent smartphone has become a most indispensable accessory and has, in a relatively short time, forced its way into our arsenal of communication tools. It is undeniably incredible that we now have the ability to interact with friends, family and the world from the palm of our hands. More incredible still, is the extent to which electronic devices, but more accurately, the applications which run on them, are influencing our behaviour, our emotions and our experiences. We have seen, in our research, that along with delivering our relational structures to our hands, a broad range of our behaviours, emotions and cognitions become amplified. Furthermore, these thoughts, feelings and actions have a significant effect on further thoughts, feelings and actions.
In the normal run of events, the content of our networked relations, have attitudinal, behavioural and perceptual consequences on the individual, but we are generally accustomed to the intensity and strength of these interactions. Every now and then, an interaction surprises us, but this is unusual. One has to wonder if it is the proximity and the ubiquity of smartphones and their attendant applications which afford new, frequent, dynamic and often surprising interactions which make us susceptible to FoMO; FoMO is a driving force behind social media use (Przybylski et al, 2014). The content of the interactions from an enlarged set of structured relations, tethered to us, is continually, unpredictably changing and is being updated in real time. Even when we’re not interacting with our screens we know that this vibrant, shifting, shiny, new content is right there, just a swipe or a tap away.

Przybylski, A., Murayama, K., DeHaan, C., & Gladwell, V. (2013). Motivational, emotional, and behavioral correlates of fear of missing out. Comput HumBehav. ;29(4):1841–1848.