Tag: facebook

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.

FoMO and the “wished for” life


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.

Facebook and the Fear of Missing Out

Within the last decade, social networking sites have become increasingly important tools for social interaction and communication between people. These platforms allow us to create semi-public or public profiles and to observe and examine inventories of online relationships made by ourselves and others. With experience and time, the perception of Facebook and other social networking sites as accepted forms of communication is becoming less foreign to us and we now communicate seamlessly, frequently, and with various levels of awareness of the impact upon us and those we are connected with. The new generation of technology users are entering into an intimate relationship with these, as yet, immature and evolving technologies. As online social networking becomes more prevalent, we provide more and more access to the details of our lives and, without fully understanding the consequences, we allow social media and a virtual network of “friends” influence over our experience and behaviour.

Lately, an acronym emerging from online communications is becoming more and more commonplace: “FoMO” (fear of missing out), a previously humorous urban slang word, is being used in everyday conversation; companies are recognising the importance of FoMO for their marketing strategy; opinion pieces on the phenomenon appear in newspapers and magazines around the world, and in August 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary even proposed a definition of FoMO. FoMO, we are told, involves “Anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website”. Essays and blog posts on Psychology Today and PsychCentral websites feature opinions on FoMO, suggesting a growing academic interest in the concept. However, there has been very little substantive research that has focused directly on FoMO.

FoMO, arising from the immediacy and ubiquity of social media, is perceived as having mainly negative outcomes. However, to date, only one study has focussed directly on efforts to measure FoMO and its consequences. Przybylski and colleagues (2013) defined FoMO as: “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent…the desire to stay continually connected to what others are doing”.  The study reported that young people, particularly young males, exhibited high levels of FoMO.  Notably, those who reported high levels of FoMO also scored low on satisfaction of basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness).  High levels of FoMO were also associated with lower levels of life satisfaction and positive mood; and those who scored high in FoMO were more likely to use social media immediately before sleep, upon waking, and during both meal times and their university lectures.

One major problem with both the Oxford Dictionary definition of FoMO and the measure of FoMO developed by Przybylski and colleagues is that the definition and understanding of FoMO is not grounded directly in the views of technology users. We’ve started to adopt a new approach to construct definition and scale development in psychology, specifically, by engaging directly with stakeholders and using collective intelligence methods to ground our understanding of key phenomena.  In our research, we were interested in exploring the possible negative consequences of social media use, and how these negative consequences related to each other in the context of FoMO. To investigate this, we carried out four collective intelligence sessions with a total of 76 Irish University students, using Interactive Management, a systems thinking approach to collective intelligence. Participants in each of the four groups were presented with a short description of FoMO and were asked the following question: “What are the negative consequences of FoMO?” After a period of idea generation, clarification, and voting, the top ranked negative consequences of FoMO were highlighted. Across the four collective intelligence sessions, in excess of 80 distinct consequences of FoMO were selected via voting. Some of the negative consequences of FoMO reported by our participants included: Increased feelings of being singled out; Increased dishonesty in the portrayal of one’s self-image; Increased feelings of personal inadequacy; Increased feelings of loneliness; Increased unfair judgements of others; Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life; Increased detachment from family and friends; and Increased jealousy in relation to the lives of others.

In the next stage of their collective intelligence work, students discussed the possible interdependencies between these negative consequences, using our matrix-structuring, model-building software.  Questions were presented in the following format: Does negative consequence A significantly aggravate negative consequence B?  Through a process of facilitated dialogue and reasoning and with the assistance of the software, each group generated a problematique, or a structural model, of the interdependencies (see Fig.1 for an example). The structural model is to be read from left to right, with relational lines indicating ‘significantly aggravates’.

Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan
Source: Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan

Figure 1. Structural Model of FoMO consequences

For the participants in this Interactive Management session, “Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life” and a “Decrease in Privacy” emerge as the primary negative consequences of FoMO. Both of these negative consequences directly and significantly aggravate a “Poorer self-image” at the second stage of the structural model and also a “Decrease in concentration“, at the fourth stage. Further, the primary negative consequence, “Increased dissatisfaction with one’s life”, significantly aggravates an “Increase in the dishonesty in the portrayal of one’s self-image”. “Poorer self-image” significantly aggravates “Feelings of jealousy in relation to the lives of others”, which in turn aggravates “Unfair judgements of others”. Furthermore, at the third level of the structural model, “Increased tendency to neglect basic needs” significantly aggravates “Decrease in concentration”.

Following data collection and the interpretation of the structural models, using meta-analysis across all four sessions, we identified a number of high level themes or categories of FoMO consequences. Key themes in relation to the negative consequences of FoMO included:  Pressure, Paranoia, Separation, Self-identity problems, Dissatisfaction, Loneliness, Negative Self-Image, Personal Inadequacy, Disconnection, Jealousy, and Judgement. The negative consequences within the Judgement category received the highest number of votes across the four group, with 42 votes cast in this category (see Fig.2).

Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan
Source: Cormac Ryan, Owen Harney, Michael Hogan

Figure 2. The consequences of FoMO.  Note: Numbers in parenthesis in thematic category headings indicate number of votes received by the category


With 1.49 billion users, Facebook is the most popular social networking site in the world. In a recent survey conducted by Thinkhouse, it was found that 35% of all Facebook users in Ireland are under the age of 25, with 98% of them using the application on their smartphones; 90% check their phone “when they wake up”, 87% “on public transport” and 84% “while watching T.V.” (Thinkhouse, 2014). The new wave of social networking on Facebook, has been described as “a great uncontrolled experiment on kids” (Shifrin, 2011). The psychological impact of Facebook use, and FoMO, is slowly revealing itself.   Our study is the first to use Interactive Management to explore the interdependencies between negative consequences of FoMO identified as significant by Facebook users. Considering the logic of our four collective intelligence groups, it appears that Facebook usage can have a variety of negative consequences and, importantly, these outcomes are related to one another in a system of negative consequences. Notably, a decrease in personal privacy, increased detachment from friends and family, increased feelings of loneliness, and dissatisfaction with one’s life, are all fundamental drivers of other negative consequences of FoMO. These negative consequences are, in turn, related to and significantly aggravate increased unfair judgements of others, change in personality, paranoia, jealousy and decreases in concentration.

Given the range and pervasiveness of the negative psychological consequences that users are reporting in our study, one must wonder whether the designers of Facebook would have rolled out the platform in its current design format if psychologist had been included in the original design team?  Had the developers used a scenario-based design approach to development, mapping user goals and experiences in an iterative, interactive design process and importing psychological science to inform key design decisions, the Facebook we know today would look very different. Ultimately, from a scenario-based design perspective, there is a system of negative influence resulting from Facebook usage that needs to be considered as part of the design of future social networking sites.  The question is, how do we overcome these negative consequences in the design of software solutions in the future?  Our belief is that technologists need to slow down in their rush to develop the ‘next big thing’ and consider the impact of their creations on user experience and the social-emotional development of the global population.

Ryan, C., Harney, O., & Hogan, M.

Paper never refused ink

“Digital dependence ‘eroding human memory'” (http://www.bbc.com/news/education-34454264)

“Digital amnesia on the rise as we outsource our memory to the web” (http://www.sciencealert.com/digital-amnesia-on-the-rise-as-we-outsource-our-memory-to-the-web)

“Digital amnesia leaves us vulnerable” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/digital-amnesia-kaspersky-1.3262600)

Over the last few days, a number of news websites and news organisations around the world have run a story about a piece of research conducted by Kaspersky Lab. The study, pithily entitled “The rise and impact of digital amnesia: Why we need to protect what we no longer remember”, seems to have received widespread support from these organisations, in that the results have been published without any of the journalists questioning the methodology used in the study or for that matter the results themselves. Terrifyingly, the study states that “Connected devices enrich our lives but they have also given rise to the potentially risky phenomenon of digital amnesia…increasingly relying on devices to store information as our memory leaves us immensely vulnerable should the device be lost or stolen or the data compromised — particularly if we are out and about.”

I don’t know about you, but my risky behaviour as left me feeling “immensely vulnerable”, right now and I’m afraid to go “out and about”. I might just close the curtains…..

As Jennifer Aniston would say, “Here’s the science bit”: The researchers surveyed 6,000 male and female consumers, aged between 16 and 55+, with 1,000 from each of the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Benelux . The survey was undertaken online in February/March 2015.

That sounds like a fairly powerful study and given the number of people involved, the results should be very believable.

The only problem is that the participants in the study were only asked if they could recall phone numbers and it turned out that across Europe, up to 60% of adults could phone the house they lived in aged 10; but not their children (53%), or the office (51%) without first looking up the number. Around a third couldn’t call their partners.

Thankfully, Kaspersky Lab (short for “laboratory”….science-ey), a cyber-security firm, “is committed to helping people understand the risks their data could be exposed to and empowering them to tackle those risks”. Phew!

Memory is not only incredibly complex, but it has a limited capacity; we forget things that we don’t need to remember in order to remember things that we do. The fantastically named researchers Storm & Stone, examined if saving information to a device would effect the ability to learn and remember new information. Results showed that saving one file before studying a new file significantly improved memory for the contents of the new file. The authors suggest that “saving” provides people with the ability to dump memory onto the environment in order to reduce the interference it might cause to new learning and storing new information. Without going into more research and looking at these findings, would it not be as easy to say “Incredibly efficient human system dumps useless information” or “Human memory capacities enhanced by mobile devices”?

Digital Dependence?

imageWe live in a digital age. Whether it’s with the newest Smartphone or the latest laptop, technology and communicating with that technology are an all-pervading feature of life, particularly for young people. It seems that using communications technology and communication through social networking has become as acceptable as communicating face-to-face. In fact, young people have become so used to interacting with each other using social media, that this form of communication has become legitimate and indeed, vital.
In a recent survey conducted by Thinkhouse, it was found that 96% of Irish 15-35 year olds owned their own smartphone. Of that group, 98% used Facebook on those devices, with 90% checking their phone “when they wake up”, 87% checking in “on public transport” and 84% “while watching T.V. A majority of respondents (57%) to the survey even went so far as to say that they were more likely to check their phone “on the loo” than while on a date.
In July 2012, the IACP released a statement regarding social media addiction. The press release, quoting a “leading Irish counsellor”, warned of the dangers of social media addiction. The release likened the addiction to that of alcohol and tobacco; it claimed that relationships, jobs and studies would be adversely effected; that by giving into the urges to use social media, users were likely to be depressed and to suffer from low self-esteem (IACP, 2012). This press release, based on the finding of one study, was published with the headline “Does someone need to open a social media rehab?” on one popular website, Joe.ie. Further, the Addiction Counsellors of Ireland warn, without providing evidence, that internet addiction can cause anxiety and sexual addiction (Addiction Counsellors of Ireland, 2014).
In July 2014, The Irish Independent published an article claiming that social media and particularly the insatiable desire for connection (often referred to as FoMO – Fear of missing out) “is having an adverse effect on our mental health” (Whelan, 2014). This article, entitled “How social media is hitting our mental health”, goes on to state that social media usage can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems and the author foresees a time when web services will have to carry a health warning. These alarming warnings seem to be based on a number of assumptions; that the online world is a dangerous place; that resultant outcomes, which manifest in the digital environment, are caused by that environment and that specialised solutions are required.
Social networks and constant high speed communication provide many benefits, allowing young users to feel connected and socially involved. Though the benefits of these technologies (almost instant communication, security, self awareness, self presentation, autonomy, mastery, competence etc) are many, there are consequences to living in the digital age which we are still coming to terms with.
That said, in their most recent Annual Review of Research, Livingstone & Smith (2014) point out that serious and repetitive online bullying occurs to 5% of young people, less than in face-to-face interactions. Further, they find that the majority of young people are not viewing pornography, with fewer still sending explicit sexual messages and images. Furthermore, only a small subset of the 2% of young people who “may” receive sexual solicitations are victimised. Additionally, the authors state that the digital world is no more dangerous than the actual world which young people inhabit. fb
Perhaps the problems posed by technology are merely a reflection of normal social interactions and that, rather than focusing research and resources on internet safety, efforts should be targeted on what excites and enthuses young people about technology and what benefits they derive from platforms like Facebook. Conceivably, more holistic, emotional intelligence and media training would be more appropriate than issuing sensationalist, often groundless warnings.