Social media has been getting a bad rap in the press recently. First, there’s The Innovation of Loneliness, a terrific short film (just over four minutes) by Shimi Cohen. It suggests that one of the key differences between real life and social-media life is the ability to edit. We can edit ourselves on social media and put our best foot forward. Not so in real life and, according to Cohen, that’s what makes real-life superior. Simply put: you interact with real people, not edited people.
Cohen — whose film is based on Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together – urges us to slow down and have actual conversations with others. He also explains (though never names) the concept of Dunbar’s Number – that humans naturally organize themselves into groups of 150 or less. He implies that any group larger than 150 is too much for the human mind to handle. So what’s the point of having, say, 500 friends on Facebook?
Cohen’s film reminded me of the many articles I’ve read on mindfulness recently. For instance, Scientific American Mind recently led with mindfulness as its cover story. I’ve also been reading Mindfulness for Beginners by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The common thread is the admonition to slow down and, as Kabat-Zinn phrases it, “reclaim the present moment.” These writings don’t specifically suggest that social media is bad for you but it’s an easy conclusion to draw.
A research article recently published in the Public Library of Science (PLoS) is much more specific. In fact, its title pretty much says it all: “Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being Among Young Adults”. (The original research paper is here. For non-technical summaries, click here for an article from The Economist or here for one from the L.A. Times).
The study tracked 82 young people as they used Facebook. They were also asked to report their “satisfaction with life” at the beginning and end of the study. Bottom line: “…the more they used Facebook [during the study period], the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time.”
The PLoS study doesn’t identify the causes in decline of life satisfaction. But The Economist points to an earlier study to identify a likely culprit. The study, conducted in Germany, found that “…the most common emotion aroused by using Facebook is envy”. The Economist makes essentially the same point that Shimi Cohen does:
Endlessly comparing themselves with peers who have doctored their photographs, amplified their achievements and plagiarised their bons mots can leave Facebook’s users more than a little green-eyed. Real-life encounters, by contrast, are more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get).
So should we drop social media? As I wrote several months ago, I still think it’s a good way to stay in touch with our “Christmas card friends” – those friends whom we like but don’t see very often. For our bosom buddies, on the other hand, it’s probably better to just slow down and have a nice, mindful heart-to-heart conversation.