How Social Media May Be Making You a Nicer Person

Research finds that online trends are creating kinder, gentler users.

Posted Aug 08, 2015

Source: Kite_rin/Shutterstock

With the rise of social media has come the concern that we are becoming less and less able to relate to each other in a humane way. Social psychologists worry, further, that use of online media can lead to “Slacktivism,” a lazy and ineffective way to bring about social change. Coined by Evgeny Morozov in 2010 and used interchangeably with “Clicktivism,” the concept refers to the fact that it’s much easier to sign onto a cause online and then do nothing in the real world to follow up on that cause. You might, according to this thinking, “Like” a Facebook page devoted to recycling in your community but when it comes to taking out the trash, not change your old habits at all.

There can, however, be hidden benefits that follow from the ease of promoting a social cause through online media. Due to the desire that we have to maintain a sense of consistency, if you in fact click that Like button, you’ll actually be more rather than less likely to follow through on your now-publicly-stated opinions in your private moments (and separate the plastic from the paper).

To investigate the possibility that social media would help rather than hurt prosocial behavior, Heriot Watt (Edinburg) University’s Jane-Marie Fatkin and Terry Lansdown examined nearly 10,000 tweets associated with the hashtags “Giving Tuesday” and “unselfie” on Tuesday, Dec. 3., 2013. Both hashtags represented movements devoted to countering “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday” (in the U.S.) by encouraging social media users to help others in need rather than shop. Nearly 20% of all tweets on that day associated with these hashtags mentioned the Salvation Army.

More than just tweeting, though, social media users actually seemed to be following through with cash donations. As Fatkin and Lansdown report, donations associated with Giving Tuesday were up 90% over the previous year. Beyond charitable giving, the Fatkin and Lansdown paper examined real help that people in trouble gave to each other. A January 29, 2014 snowstorm in Atlanta stranded thousands of motorists, creating dire needs. Atlanta resident Michelle Sollicito created an open Facebook group the night of the storm that more than 50,000 people joined within one day, offering assistance and resources to those in need. Two weeks later, when a second winter storm struck the city, the group was reactivated. Sollicito was hailed as the “Snow Angel of Atlanta,” but she attributed her success entirely to Facebook.

Analyzing the content of the Facebook posts, Fatkin and Lansdown identified a range of themes from Problem Resolved (“She made it home finally at 9:30 this morning”) to Information Provided (“I-95 Northbound is in good shape!”). People asked for information, such as where they could buy food; others actually told people in the group where they lived so they could find shelter for the night.

There were some of the usual problems with social media, such as negative posts and arguments among group members. Also, you could argue that these were just isolated, extraordinary events with results specific to these events. Countering this argument, the authors note that “Giving Tuesday is an annual online giving event, and SnowedOutAtlanta is being used as a guide for putting social media to good use during disasters.” (p. 586)

Along similar lines, consider that many new forms of social media in fact encourage prosocial behavior in areas where the opposite tends to occur. One of these is road rage. Road rage may actually be the rise, or our awareness of it has just increased, but in either case, there are potentially understandable reasons that we become angry when we get behind the wheel—crowded highways, increasingly long commutes, and endless weather or construction problems. There's also a certain depersonalization associated with travel in motor vehicles.

Unlike public transportation, a car or truck puts us in a steel and glass bubble, keeping us from having visual contact with our fellow travelers. Ironically, the people we treat like objects in our way on the road are, in fact, the same people we would respond to in a friendly manner if interacting in any other situation. How many times do you exchange a smile with a stranger that you ride with on the bus or subway? Would you even consider stepping on that person’s foot (the equivalent of cutting off a driver in traffic) if he or she moved too slowly?

With this in mind, let’s consider the effect on driver behavior of the latest entry into the world of social media—the app called “Waze.” Using it, drivers can communicate with each other to provide alerts about traffic jams, road hazards, gas prices, and (somewhat controversially) the presence of police officers on the road. Theoretically, it is not the driver who uses the app (which would cause distracted driving) but a passenger. However, like a standard GPS service (which it also provides), Waze offers route information and so presents the same pros and cons, from a cognitive point of view, as a route map. It can also provide voice alerts, meaning that drivers using the app don’t have to take their eyes off the road to be warned of danger.

What’s psychologically interesting about Waze is the way it depicts other drivers. Rather than just being red dots or lines on a map, signifying traffic tie-ups, the app represents drivers with cute and friendly cartoon-like icons. There’s also a built-in incentive to relate positively to your fellow motorists because you earn points for providing helpful advice. As you move up the point scale, you are allowed to depict yourself with higher “status” symbols, or badges. You’re rewarded for “playing nice” with other drivers.

Assuming that you’re not typing into the app while you’re driving, the app encourages you to thank people for giving you updates or warnings, and even to offer helpful advice through a “chat” feature. I saw one such chat from a driver alerting travelers on the Massachusetts Turnpike getting off at the Cape Cod exit about which lane to use for EZ pass express payment. Considering the huge jam occurring at the time, this could prove hugely time-saving.

Similarly, the apps Ravelry and Pinterest deliver online communities in which people offer advice for no reason other than to swap tips. TripAdvisor, like Waze, helps people manage the confusing maze of entertainment, lodging, and food options, rewarding reviewers with badges, points, and feedback. Unless you’re frantically searching on your mobile device for a restaurant or hotel while driving (a definite danger), you should become a more efficient traveler as a result of using them.

All of social media’s advantages and disadvantages need to be weighed against each other. The advantage of communicating via social media is that you can interact with people who aren’t physically present. The obvious disadvantage is that you can start to take your social media relationships too far so that they crowd out real-world friends, families, and partners. It’s reassuring to know, however, that since social media are clearly here to stay, there are ways we can use them to benefit our fulfillment and those of the people we seek to help.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


  • Fatkin, J., & Lansdown, T. C. (2015). Prosocial media in action. Computers In Human Behavior, 48581-586. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.01.060
  • Morozov, E. (2010). The net delusion: The dark side of Internet freedom. New York: Public Affairs.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015