Social media has become an important part of our lives. It has led a communication revolution, making it far easier for large, diverse groups of people to communicate. However, social media has also brought about many complications and psychological side-effects.
Facebook was the first big social media site. It’s been followed by Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and so on. There are more than 60 social media platforms today, and all have added different layers and functions to our social media interactions.
Although other platforms have reached hundreds of millions of users, Facebook is the most popular: it is closing in on 2 billion users, as of 2017. In 2012, researchers in Norway published a psychological scale to measure Facebook addiction, and their findings confirm that social networking is a “modern” addiction. Here, I will focus on the case of Facebook and I want to examine the psychological consequences and implications of extensive social media use.
Facebook is the largest online entity with the capacity to have direct access to the most extensive and in-depth information about its members. Imagine a state that has the capacity to know what an ordinary person ate on a certain day; with whom he or she has recently become friends; what his or her likes and dislikes are; and what his or her views are on a wide spectrum of issues. A state with that much knowledge would be terrifying.
With the degree and content of data that Facebook has access to, it is awfully similar to this theoretical authoritarian “state.” Through a systematic analysis of this large amount of data, one could professionally identify a member’s emotional and cognitive world and behavioral patterns, thereby gaining predictive leverage over his future preferences, reactions, and attitudes. All of these could be utilized by companies to access more information on their customers’ needs and desires, which could then translate to better advertisement and innovation. This could also be advantageous for security institutions, as such personal information including networks and relationships at the global level, these institutions believe, could help authorities contain and prevent violent terrorist activities. The implications – and potential implications – of widespread Facebook use on security, commerce, individuality, and privacy, are manifold.
Facebook is profoundly shaping our perception of reality. Since someone’s Facebook profile keeps track of his or her “post” history, it provides others with easy access to a brief “personal history.” Many of us develop first impressions about a person from their Facebook profile.
Human beings generally use cognitive shortcuts to figure out what a person is like; our first impressions are very unlikely to change. If someone has been put into a certain box or coded as having a certain type of personality by others, that rash and incomplete image is difficult to change without strong sensual information to the contrary. Even then, this opposing information may fail to change our mind: our brains tend to categorize such information as an exception, according to therapist Noah Rubenstein. The nature of Facebook use – the fact that people often choose to share what they want their friends to know about them (which happens to be the best parts of their lives) – also contributes to the construction of incomplete and distorted images of other people.
As the cliché goes, human psychology is very complicated and every human being is a different world of ideas, feelings, experiences, fears, and hopes. The prevailing practice of getting to know someone through a short visit on his or her Facebook profile results in the consumption of people’s individuality in a way similar to how a commercial good gets consumed. Human beings are not and should not be treated as aggregated pieces of information. It is not healthy nor fair to form ideas and opinions about someone’s personality without observing how that individual’s behaviors and attitudes change under different conditions and with different individuals. As an overarching principle, saying and posting should not be weighted equally with actual doing. One should rather prefer to observe an individual’s behavioral patterns (repetitive actions) before forming any opinions about them. And this can only be achieved with a philosophy that views individuals as aggregates of behaviors rather than as aggregates of pieces of information.
Secondly, intense Facebook use (average time spent on Facebook by a user is 50 minutes a day) might cause one’s impulse to do things to be replaced by the desire to update his or her profile, informing one’s crowd of friends, on Facebook, about what is going on in their life. This deep urge to share the moment indeed harms our ability to live the moment. The logic of sharing on Facebook also fosters a set of standards in regards to potential reactions. For example, if someone’s posts are being liked by 30-40 people on average, this would automatically create a threshold for the acceptable level of appreciation and lead to the feelings of frustration when this level of appreciation is not constantly achieved. This greed for appreciation and affirmation often contributes to the development of a habit of trying to look like the person that our general crowd of friends on Facebook unconsciously and indirectly wants us to become through displaying differing reactions towards our posts on Facebook. By intentionally not being ourselves, or by becoming afraid of appearing as ourselves on Facebook, we are allowing our Facebook identity to be shaped on the basis of the likes and dislikes of an online community and sacrificing our individual differences. This is like being a celebrity and being subjected to the pressure coming from presenting yourself in a way that is acceptable to the larger community. But the difference is that in this situation, the burden of being a celebrity is carried by ordinary people who don’t have access to the economic benefits of celebrity.
Thirdly, Facebook is changing the nature of our fundamental social interactions. For example, celebrating someone’s birthday turns out to be as simple as posting a happy birthday message on that person’s Facebook profile, as opposed to celebrating in a face to face interaction or making a phone call. Sharing someone’s grief is being reduced to adding an “I am really sorry” comment on that person’s Facebook post expressing grief for their loss.
According to Forbes magazine, only 7% of communication is based on the verbal word. That means that over 90% of communication is based on nonverbal cues such as body language, eye contact, and tone of voice. Social media interactions are not conducive to the exchange of these nonverbal cues that are essential for healthy communication.
Fourthly, active Facebook users occasionally suffer from an informational obesity as they constantly get exposed to unnecessary loads of information about their friends’ private and public lives. From an opposite angle, this leads to a situation where the modern individual who attaches a great level of importance on privacy and autonomy willingly becomes the provider of a great level of visual and verbal information on his or her private life to a mixed audience (people whom he or she just met a minute ago and people who are closest to him or her). This indicates the stark contradiction between the intentions and actions of the modern individual.
Finally, Facebook increases the risk of getting named and shamed in front of an online community if we change or contradict our previous behaviors or beliefs.