Snapping Away to Mindlessness: Commentary on Our Relationship with Social Media

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I wake up, fumble for my phone, check the time and then go through the process of checking my email and all of my social media. Within seconds, I am “updated” on my friends’ lives — I’m watching them clink their glasses repeatedly on boomerang, pose at a rooftop bar overlooking the NYC skyline and smile through perfect selfies surrounded by attractive friends. While making coffee, I read their post lengthy Instagram captions about their latest accomplishment. He already finished his Ph.d already? Jeeze, has it already been six years? While brushing my teeth, I ruminate on how this one friend just got engaged. Maybe, I should start dating again, I think. Sitting on the subway, I scroll through a seemingly endless Facebook feed on which my family and friends catalog their political commentary, their witty jokes and their upcoming travel plans. I pause at a provocative post and read through the comments that progressively say less and less and spiral more and more out of control. Sitting at a red light, I open my phone and watch someone singing (with the pretty filter) on snap chat to the newest Drake song. Oh, you only love your mom and your bed? That’s a bit sad, actually, Drizzy.

This cycle repeats throughout the day.

At the first sign of boredom, I casually scroll through my feed and look through what the rest of the world is up. Sometimes, at a mental overload, I’ll just relocate to the “explore” tab and watch puppy videos. Husky puppies are my weakness.

This is mindless distraction, killing time through short videos. Rarely, do I learn anything new.

. . .

 

I see this phenomenon reflected domestically and internationally. In Bangkok, at their largest mall, I was struck by how eerily similar their culture paralleled ours. Thai citizens were scrolling through Instagram on the subways, vlogging on Snapchat videos, and posting just as heavily as the rest of us. I’m not sure why I thought social media dependency was isolated as a domestic epidemic.

I sat on the plane leaving LAX last month and the woman next to me spent 10 minutes recording her face. No offense, but who wants to see your face for that long? These feelings of frustration, furthermore, are heightened with users who constantly post selfies, catalog each minor accomplishment with the gravity of a Nobel Peace prize and — worst of all — post pictures with hashtags #livingmybestlife as if the rest of us signed up for a #livingmymediocrelife subscription.

Stop.

Just stop.

. . .

The Big Questions:

Why do we the feel the need to show off? Why are we putting so much effort with presenting an exaggerated, sugar coated highlight reel of our lives online? Are we competing with one another, showing each other pictures of our lives to say, “hey, look, I’m successful, fun and desirable too”? Are we seeking validation for our choices in our filtered lives with likes and comments?

Why?

Is it nature? Is it low esteem? Is it dopamine? Is it nurture? Is it something we learned as a behavior over the years, through social media use? What does it say about our generation? More importantly, how does this shape us in the future?

The research originating from this new field is fascinating and even got me experimenting with giving up social media (at least for a 100 days).

 

Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

Let’s begin with selfies.

What are we trying to achieve through selfies?

According to a 2016 study on Singapore teenage girls’ engagement in self presentation and peer comparison, subjects used social media in a number of ways. It first shaped their perceptions of beauty. Similar to the United States and the Kardashian obsessed beauty industry, girls mimicked what was seen as beautiful. They posted selfies that fit those peer norms to seek peer recognition.

Through interviews, it was further deduced that, “feelings of low self-esteemand insecurity underpinned their efforts in edited self-presentation and quest for peer recognition. Peers played multiple roles that included imaginary audiences, judges, vicarious learning sources, and comparison targets in shaping teenage girls’ perceptions and presentation of beauty” [1]. In other words, social media decided what was beauty for these girls and they responded by posting selfies to fit that norm. Like a two street, social networks judge how accurately selfie takers fit this mold and also shape current beauty standards.

What about those beauty filters?

Continuing with this topic of selfies, let’s add in the taboo topic of filters: most snapchat filters have add on features that are comical and/or entertaining (i.e. the infamous dog face filter). A few filters, however, are dubbed as “pretty filters” or “beauty filters”. According to Carolyn Hsu, a digital managing editor, “the beauty filter smooths fine lines, evens skin tone, adds glow and highlights and contours all in one step” [2]adding on another level of unrealistic beauty standards. Recent selfies within the last year show more filtered selfies, lighter skin, contoured faces and larger eyes. Users post them, knowing that they are not accurate representations of their appearance.

It goes without saying that when these alterations are considered the standard of beauty and we are reminded, “that doesn’t even look like you”, we might conclude that we, subsequently, are not attractive. That logic is incorrect. We are attractive, with our smaller eyes, darker skin and fine lines. Yes, we do not look like brushed up anime characters. That is normal.

 

Photo by Xavier Sotomayor on Unsplash

How do we feel on social media?

Feeling shitty after being on social media is, evidently, also normal. Research studies are coming out linking higher rates of depression because we innately compare ourselves to our peers when we’re on social media [3] and feel badly about it. Another study tracked how the more we use social media, the less happy we tend to be. Defining well-being as how people feel moment-to-moment and how satisfied they are with their lives, greater Facebook use showed negative shifts for both variables[4]. Interestingly enough, this same study also found that direct person to person interaction did not show this decline in well being. In fact, “direct social network interactions led people to feel better over time” [5]. There is a clear difference with interacting with people over social media as compared to interaction in person.

With the promise of connecting the world closer and increasing communication between individuals, social media has the potential to replace in person interactions. A question discussed repeatedly over dinner tables and talk shows is, “Is social media adding on to our relationships or replacing them?”.

 

Photo by Patryk Sobczak on Unsplash

Is social media adding on to our relationships or replacing them?

Dr. Daniel Siegel, Mindsight Institute Executive Director for Business Insider, presented a fascinating explanation on the difference between these two types of interactions within the brain. Face to face interactions involve in person communication which includes:

  • eye contact,
  • facial expression,
  • tone of voice,
  • posture,
  • gestures,
  • timing and
  • intensity.

The opposite is the text-driven communication over text, email and most social media that lack these seven components. The way the brain processes these interactions is mind-blowing (pun intended): the in-person interaction mainly operate in the right higher hemisphere that activate the lower regions of the brain responsible for generating emotion. The text driven communication, in contrast, is located in the left hemisphere, which is mainly involved in logistics, fostering a more superficial, distant type of interaction [6]. Additionally, social display rules, such as how many people like you or care about you, is actually a left brain function.

In other words, for those who use social media in the place of in person interaction, a surface level experience of the world is the ultimate pay off.

 

Photo by Marten Bjork on Unsplash

How are our hormones and attention manipulated?

A surface level life experience, decreased sense of well being, funky selfies, flawed perceptions of beauty and obnoxious narcissist points are, unfortunately, not the only ramifications of extreme social media at the expense of in person interactions. According to some research, our inability to control our attention due to social media can lead to attention deficit disorders. Additionally, with respect to hormones, we’re catering our social media use (with respect to what we post, what we say, if it’s about us or others) to collect likes and attention, which then rewards us with dopamine to make us “feel good” temporarily.

Social media cannot be discussed nowadays without a term called, “attention economy” which treats attention as a scarce commodity. Matthew Crawford said, “Attention is a resource — a person has only so much of it”. Why waste it on shit you don’t like? I honestly cannot care less that Kylie had a baby, regardless of how many times Snapchat and Instagram remind me. I don’t care. Why give my attention to platforms that advertise and define beauty to me? Why pollute my mind with endless amounts of unnecessary information that serves me no purpose?

Conclusion

As much as I love my friends, there is no point in knowing that Sonia had a mojito last night or that Ajay was at Ippudo today eating ramen. Before the birth of social media, this type of information was pointless and if I went around saying, “hashtag living my best life”, people would raise eyebrows because, quite honestly, they don’t care. Contrary to the false “value” in likes and attention attributed to posts on social media, most information about your life, about my life, (all information) about the Kardashians’ is pointless.

Instead of waking up and getting “caught up” with my social circle, I’m changing the extent social media is present in my life and how I interact with it.

I mean, I’ll miss the husky puppies definitely, but I think if I see another obnoxious narcissist post, I’ll passive aggressively comment with a link to this article.

 

[1] Chang L., Chua T.H.H., “Follow me and like my beautiful selfies: Singapore teenage girls’ engagement in self presentation and peer comparison on social media”. Computers in Human Behavior. Volume 55, Part A. February 2016. Pages 190–197

[2] Fallon, Brittany Burhop. “Is this snapchat filter creating unrealistic beauty standards?” August 30, 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.newbeauty.com/blog/dailybeauty/9814-snapchat-beauty-filter/ on June 2nd, 2018

[3] Seeing Everyone Else’s Highlight Reels: How Facebook Usage is Linked to Depressive Symptoms Mai-Ly N. Steers, Robert E. Wickham, and Linda K. Acitelli https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2014.33.8.701

[4] Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, Lin N, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069841

[5] Kross E, Verduyn P, Demiralp E, Park J, Lee DS, Lin N, et al. (2013) Facebook Use Predicts Declines in Subjective Well-Being in Young Adults. PLoS ONE 8(8): e69841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0069841

[6] Siegel, Daniel. “How social media is rewiring our brains”. Published Jan 15, 2015. Business Insider. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkMh6xdJNeM

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