Research Reveals New Risks for Daily Social Media Users

Device fixation is more perilous than you might think.

Posted Nov 13, 2015

So what is more important to you, sex, alcohol, chocolate, or your smartphone? Given a choice among the four, over 90% of respondents to a Bank of America (2014) consumer mobility survey indicated they are more likely to give up one or several of the guilty pleasures to stay connected with their smartphone. Ironically 34% of respondents to the same survey indicated they would “feel naked” if they did not have their phone for more than a few hours. Device dependence is exacerbated by age, as young people (ages 18-24) rated their mobile device as more important in their daily lives than an automobile, television, coffee, and disturbingly, the use of deodorant!

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Many of the tangible risks and detrimental consequences of device obsession are frequently reported by the media.  Smartphone usage is attributed to a consistent rise in the frequency of automobile accidents as 27% of all crashes in 2015 were related to phone usage, while texting when driving was a factor in 6% of accidents.  Overuse of cell phones contributes to physical ailments, including wrist, neck, and hand pain, and the development of musculoskeletal disorders such as reduced thumb and compromised grip strength (Inal et al., 2015).  Smartphone usage is also highly distracting, with a recent Gallup poll indicating that the average U.S. user checks their phone at least once an hour and about 35 times a day!  The problem is especially egregious at work, where 69% engage in some form of cyberslacking, defined as using the Internet and mobile technology during work for personal reasons (Vitak, Crouse, & LaRose, 2011).

Although many users are engrossed in mobile technology to send text messages, catch up on current events, or to enhance their work efficiency by checking email, the majority of users, especially those under age 50, rely upon their devices as an electronic lifeline to their social presence and online reputations. According to an October 2015 New York Post article, 1.49 billion people post on Facebook every month. The online mobile photo-sharing site Instagram has 80 million photos posted daily. Twitter, the 140-character microcosm of news and personal ruminations has 316 million active accounts. While the social curation platform Pinterest boasts 100 million users (85% female and 42% of all U.S. women who go online), use the site to curate their cultural and lifestyle preferences.

Why is social media so alluring?

Many pragmatic reasons account for the enormous popularity of social media, including the ease of staying in touch with friends and family, amusement derived from compelling content and media, or the opportunity to foster relationships with people who have similar interests.  Psychologically, social media satisfies at least two primary needs.  First, humans strive to appear competent.  When a person posts information online, self-perceptions of competence are elevated and reinforced, especially when others recognize the value of the content through “sharing” and “liking.”  Second, most people thrive on forging relationships and interacting positively with others.  Online interactions provide the opportunity to connect with a larger community or social network thereby satisfying the need for affiliation.  In combination, these factors give users an elevated sense of personal identity that, for some, may not be achieved through traditional, face-to-face interaction.

For many, social media participation becomes a form of gratification achieved through self-disclosure, as individuals often reveal personal attributes about the self with the anticipation of receiving positive feedback from others as a result of the disclosure. Considering that 30-40% of our daily communications are focused on describing private experiences or personal relationships to others, it is no wonder that social media is an ideal conduit to garner positive self-impressions.  Physiological reactions associated with self-disclosure are highly similar to changes in brain chemistry observed when people win a competition, earn a materialistic reward, or gain new knowledge. When individuals share details about themselves the mesolimbic dopamine system, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental area, is activated resulting in the release of the pleasure hormone dopamine, which makes us feel good.  The feeling is so satisfying, that individuals will forgo monetary rewards in favor of disclosing personal information to others (Tamir & Mitchel, 2012), likely because the instant gratification derived from social interaction also offers the individual a positive emotional experience that is associated with feelings of pride, accomplishment, and recognition.

Unintended social media consequences

One hundred years of psychological research affirms that when humans have a pleasurable experience the frequency and intensity of effort devoted toward replicating the experience increases.  Sadly, like many other hedonistic endeavors, there are unintended and sometimes devastating consequences to device devotion, which occurs primarily through repeated engagement with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.  Besides the obvious distractions and productivity lost while looking at phones and computers, heavy social media use has been linked to deviant and destructive behaviors, which have catastrophically changed the course of people’s lives. 

Some individuals have double identities and create false online reputations by distorting their “actual” lives in an attempt to garner online attention and positive recognition.  The terms “finsta” (i.e., fake) and “rinsta” (i.e., real) are used to describe people who have both accurate and contrived online identities, most frequently exhibited through engagement with the photo-sharing site Instagram. While creating a facade about one’s life and online identity can be disturbing and potentially unethical, excessive attention seeking can also be reckless and endanger others. For instance, a Florida women, after drinking alcohol for several hours, intentionally broadcasted her October 2015 drunk-driving escapades on the live video-streaming site Periscope, describing her malicious thoughts and devious intentions to gain attention.  Luckily several members of the online community contacted police and the woman was arrested prior to inflicting harm to others or herself.  Although these anecdotal reports reveal some of the consequences of social media abuse, scientific research from sociology, psychiatry, psychology, and consumer behavior reveal at least four other reasons why we must be aware of how casual use can become addictive, leading to even more severe consequences than being distracted, unproductive, and irresponsible.

Maladaptive narcissism develops

Narcissism describes individuals who have an inflated sense of the self, engage in frequent self-promotion, and have an inordinately high need to be recognized and admired. Individuals who score high on narcissism personality inventories frequently update their “statuses” more often and comment more consistently about others, than those individuals who score low on the same inventories. While behaviors related to seeking attention and gaining recognition, may be perceived as annoying or offensive, these outcomes aren’t necessarily harmful because narcissism is also related to many pro-social behaviors, including demonstrating leadership ability and being self-confident (albeit for self-serving reasons).

Problems ensue when the media participation dominates attentional focus.  Social media platforms that offer ease of access and instant gratification are an ideal forum to cultivate the “dark side” of narcissism that includes having little tolerance for criticism, expecting favors from others, and accepting friend requests from complete strangers. Garcia and Sikström (2014) coded and analyzed Facebook status updates and found strong relationships between narcissism and psychopathy profiles as evidenced by scores on personality inventories and posts that were coded as emotionally cold, condescending, verbally abusive, and overly aggressive.  Anger develops when the highly narcissistic individual is ignored or doesn’t receive desired comments.  Individuals targeted by negative comments often retaliate in-kind.  Cyberbullying and online confrontations may develop as the narcissist seeks favorable perceptions from others. The hostile and public berating of others minimally strains relationships, and in extreme cases recipients of online harassment may develop suicidal thoughts and are prone to a higher incidence of teen suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010).

Social comparisons escalate

Individuals often model the behaviors of significant others to determine how they should think, act, and publicly portray themselves. Described as a social comparison motive, this approach is the psychological equivalent of “keeping up with the Joneses,” because instead of setting specific personal or professional goals such as making $50,000 a year, completing a project by a certain date, or getting a good test score, the benchmark of comparison is another person. While a social comparison motive is surely not dangerous, research reveals that individuals who perceive themselves negatively in comparison to others may lack the motivation for self-improvement, have a greater frequency of negative moods, and have fewer feelings of overall well-being in comparison to those who view themselves favorably.

Social comparisons can be directed upward or downward in direction.  When individuals set attainable upward comparisons, self-enhancement results.  Upward comparisons are motivationally and psychologically beneficial because the individual strives to improve and believes with effort that they can be like the person they admire. Downward comparisons are self-protective and are typically undertaken by individuals lacking in confidence to make upward comparisons and by those who are worried about what others think about them.  The downward comparisons can be instrumental in generating positive feelings about the self because of the presumption that others are more disadvantaged than the individual making the downward comparison.

Social media can exacerbate the negative consequences of comparison for at least two reasons.  First, as discussed, many online portrayals are fabricated.  Individuals may be striving toward unrealistic targets, which by the standards of a reasonable person may be unobtainable.  Jasmine, a self-proclaimed finance aficionado, recently lamented on her blog that maintaining her Instagram image was putting her in debt and that her real life was “actually pretty boring.”  Jasmine admitted to routinely embellishing her lifestyle to receive positive comments from her online audience. Although Jasmine’s austerity comments are related to financial debt, her moral compass may also be approaching bankruptcy based upon encouraging others to aspire to a similar, but artificial online image that cannot be easily attained.  

Second, comparisons to unrealistic media imagery have a psychological toll.  An inability to travel the globe, eat fancy foods daily, or drive expensive cars may result in a downward spiral of negative self-evaluations as social worthiness becomes anchored not upon one’s actual accomplishments, but instead are based on the qualitative evaluation of forestalled expectancy.  Individuals may be overwhelmed by perceptions of an inability to control their lives because the artificial targets cannot be reasonably reached.  Steers and colleagues (2014) in a study of Facebook usage aptly titled their work “Seeing everyone else’s highlight reels: How Facebook usage is linked to depressive symptoms.”  The authors concluded that the most frequent Facebook users were habitually making social comparisons and more importantly the viewing of positive portrayals of others intensified negative perceptions of the self, leading to self-reported feelings of despondence.

Self-esteem may plummet

Repeatedly viewing the grandiose achievements and admiring the electrifying lives of others can lead to more dramatic consequences than disconcerting self-comparisons and emotional upheaval. Social media often magnifies the importance of self-esteem and how we see ourselves in relation to others, especially for individuals who are predisposed to negative self-perceptions.  A recent online media survey indicated that more than 50% of individuals using social media feel worse after their session ends than before they went online.  The longevity of social media use (in years), the more hours spent per week online, and the higher incidence of befriending strangers enhances the probability that an individual will conclude others lead more glamorous and fulfilling lives than they do.  In addition, social media is a magnet for the lonely and shy, as people with these characteristics are more likely to use social media than their more extroverted peers (Bian & Leong, 2014).  Social media can be the catalyst for plummeting self-esteem, leaving the individual with pangs of disappointment, shame, guilt, or humiliation. In the worst case, a collapse in self-esteem may morph into bouts of clinical depression, with the diagnosis directly attributable to online experience, particularly from excessive Facebook use (Steers, 2014).  Sadly, the benchmarks people fail to reach, and the discrepancy between actual and ideal self-perceptions are often based on the fabricated lives of others, many of whom are motivated to participate in media for enhanced recognition based upon personal doubt concerning their own questionable self-esteem.

Some studies reveal that social media can also lead to increases in self-esteem, due to the ability to self-disclose personal experiences and share details of their lives that earn positive comments from others.  This enhancement phenomenon is more pronounced when interaction is focused on close friends, as the process of self-disclosure allows people to feel more valued and appreciated when sharing information with significant others.  However, even among close friends there is a shroud of darkness related to excessive media use.  At least one study (Wilcox & Andrews, 2014) found that self-esteem increases lead to temporary lapses in self-control.  Those individuals who spent the most time online were found to display more impulsive behavior leading to a higher body-mass index, increased binge eating, a lower credit score, and higher levels of credit-card debt than individuals with lesser ties to their social network.

Techno stress balloons

Although people engage in social media for many reasons, when participation falls short of expectations, stress develops.  Lee, Chang, and Chen (2014) defined “social media techno stress,” as the inability to cope with emerging technologies in a healthy manner.  Several causes account for stress development including the perception of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of online activity, an excessive reliance on media interaction to reduce social anxiety, an obsessive need to physically touch something, and an inordinate focus on materialism.  Ironically, stress develops from both the absence and overindulgence in social media.  Techno stress becomes “problematic” (p. 378) when the person reacts negatively to online activity resulting in social overload, or conversely when the individual believes their social media obligations are not meeting the expectations of the self or others.

For many, social anxiety is lowered and feelings of discomfort are diminished when interacting online because the medium allows for personal recognition, but insulates the person from awkwardness and negative self perceptions often encountered during face-to-face communication. Stress may develop when media access is limited, which occurs when a person is at work or is pre-occupied with other activities that preclude phone access.  Stress can also develop when an individual believes they are not meeting their social media obligations, such as feeling guilty when ignoring the postings of significant others or when social media usurps precious time that should be devoted toward more productive activities.

The sensual phenomenon suggests that some individuals are motivated by tactile stimulation.  Many people gain pleasure from physically touching something, whether it be an object, another person, or an animal.  The ubiquitous cell phone touch screen clearly satisfies the haptic urge, however, satisfaction of the need may result in obsessive checking of one’s device.   Individuals are known to achieve satisfaction merely from entering an access code or an activation pattern on the phone screen.  Too much tactile sensation can overwhelm the individual, while limited engagement may create a sensory deficit from lack of interactivity.   

Materialism satisfies a similar hedonic need, because individuals high in materialistic motives gain pleasure and satisfaction when others acknowledge and comment upon their acquired possessions.  Smart phones are seen as a viable representation of personal status as some individuals evaluate their self-worth not upon who they are, but what they have.  Possession of the latest and greatest technologies can be a strong catalyst for personal satisfaction and the revere of less endowed others.  While individually these behaviors may seem peculiar and innocuous, a strong confluence of evidence suggests that individuals with high materialistic and sensory needs may lead to compulsion, which is often significantly related to bouts of anxiety, loss of sleep, compromised credit ratings, and other addictive behaviors that reflect a general lack of self-control.

But, it’s not all bad!

It may seem that social media is more harmful than helpful to our psychological condition.  However, I would be irresponsible and remiss by not identifying the positive psychological contingencies associated with social media use. The foremost advantage is that social media participation can lead to need satisfaction and the development of “psychological ownership” (Karahanna, Xu, & Zhang, 2015, p. 185), whereby an individual’s self-identity is enhanced based upon content contributions. Identity prospers because the contributor is territorially grounded in a virtual space that serves as a conduit of expression for the otherwise lethargic or disengaged individual who may encounter challenges and insurmountable obstacles through other forms of communication. Psychological ownership is a powerful motive, often associated with accelerated job performance, psychological harmony, and overall subjective well-being.

Google images labeled for reuse
Source: Google images labeled for reuse

In a practical sense, recall that social media is generally credited for persuading independent voters to support Barack Obama’s 2008 election bid, expediting the job search process, and of course for instantaneous dissemination of news and current events.  Social media is also a powerful lifeline for those individuals isolated from the physical world due to disability or geographical obscurity.  Finally, individuals seeking their 15 minutes of fame and personal notoriety cannot discount how social media improves lives.  Recall the social media induced viral spread of the adventures of American folk heroes “Sweet Brown,” and “Antoine Dodson,” or my personal international favorite and the most watched video in the history of the universe “Gangnam Style” that has been viewed over 2.4 billion times on YouTube.  Clearly, life with social media has its irreplaceable advantages!

Feeling drained?  Want to be more productive? Crave more informative, entertaining and original content? If you are interested in learning, teaching, cognition, and motivation follow me on Twitter @ifoundmo for daily topical updates.  Be sure to check out my recent #1 new book in Cognitive Psychology on “Motivation for Learning and Performance.” 



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