The Psychology of Social Media

"My name is Peter, and I'm a social media addict"

Have you ever run into a friend on Facebook or Google+ who posts that they "need to take a break from social media"? That their faith in humanity has hit a new low? Or that they are seeing too much intolerance, trolling, etc.?

Social media has made many aspects of relationships more accessible: Viewing posts from friends scattered around the world can make you feel more connected to them, while the ubiquity of social media can often make it easier to get in touch with someone than more traditional, “offline” means. But social media also helps fuel feelings of isolation and self-doubt. A 2012 study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, for example, found that the longer people spent on Facebook each week, the more they agreed that everyone else was happier and had better lives.

For some, that self-doubt can be countered in the same place it originates: through affirming social media interactions. This is part of what keeps users coming back to social sites; favorable attention, when achieved, is an addictive sort of reward. It’s also what makes not receiving those affirmations so dispiriting. Being on the short end of someone’s social media endorsements can create feelings of anxiety, inadequacy, and irritation, while being too generous with your own social media praise can feel one-sided when left unreciprocated. So, then, can the friendship.

Such feelings are exacerbated when friends don’t follow you back, or "uncircle" or "unfriend" you - a circumstance so obsessed-over it has inspired a number of web applications meant to help users determine who dropped them.

It’s important to remember that as far as barometers of friendship go, social media is pretty shallow. It’s unrealistic, and dangerous, to presume you know how someone feels about you based on how they react or respond to you, or don’t, through virtual means, whether that presumption is positive or negative, unless that social media connection is enhanced by real communication via phone or other means and through IRL (in  real life) meetings.

Individuals who suffer from social anxiety and low self-esteem have a lot to gain from using social media. Yet, paradoxically, these individuals are less likely to do so. One study in particular found that online social communication skills and self-esteem are correlated, indicating a link between the strength of offline relationships and time spent online; this might not work to the advantage of socially anxious individuals for whom offline relationships are difficult to forge in the first place.

As an individual with great access to social media, I find myself reflecting more and more on its role in my own life. One thing I've learned is not to let it take over my life. I've learned to pace myself, taking frequent breaks whenever I feel that I need to, and above all, I try not to take social media "too seriously".