Social Media: The Real Thief Behind The Screen

In the recent weeks, the topic of social media and privacy prompted by the Facebook scandal has sparked a greater awareness in the people I work with around their use of Facebook, Instagram and the like. Here’s a recap of the story. Cambridge Analytica worked with researchers from Cambridge University who developed a Facebook app that provided a free personality test, then took all the users’ Facebook data plus that of all their friends. Using this data, then they classified each individual’s personality according to the so-called “OCEAN” scale (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism) and crafted individually targeted messages to appeal to each person’s personality. Creepy right?

Personally speaking

As a Facebook user of both personal and business accounts, I was not surprised by these developments. There was a time where I couldn’t figure out how Facebook seemed to know certain things about me and suggest friends and ads accordingly. But it is not hard to realize that my own behavior online, such as what I liked and what I commented on, had caused these suggestions. Read this lengthy explanation if you think I am just being paranoid. For example I noticed that I would see some friends and pages in my feed all the time and others would be virtually absent, completely disappeared. Furthermore, since the things I had previously engaged with were appearing more often, the likelihood of me continuing to engage with them increased. Everything else was out of sight out of mind.

In a way, social media works for us to present the things we are most likely to engage with and make our life easier. Facebook does not want to perish and our engagement is what makes its survival possible. Legitimate privacy concerns aside, social media can be viewed as a reality we ourselves construct by means of what we choose to engage with. We create the bubble and then live in it thinking it exists independently, without us having much to do with it coming into existence. This begs the question:

Is social media really stealing our freedom?

In so far as we can agree on the definition of freedom as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint, clearly not. You could argue that our information is being used in a way we did not intend or agree to, thus manipulating us and limiting our rights and freedom and you’d be right. But I propose that you (and I) have a much bigger problem when it comes to social media. One we have ignored for a very long time, the power of social media to steal our happiness and peace of mind.

A recent study examined how Facebook activity affects mood in a sample of undergraduates attending a private 4-year university. Participants (N = 312) were randomly assigned to one of the following 20-min activities: browse the Internet, passively browse others’ Facebook profiles, actively communicate with others on Facebook via messages/posts, or update their own personal profile on Facebook. Participants also completed questionnaires assessing mood, feelings of envy, and perceived meaningfulness of their time online. The results demonstrated that using Facebook led to significantly worsened mood compared with browsing the Internet, especially when participants passively browsed Facebook 1.

How can we expect Facebook to guard our information when we sometimes fail to guard and protect the most precious of possessions, our mind?

Don’t get me wrong. Social media usage isn’t all bad 2 3. In fact, for the most part, my personal experience with social media has been positive. But sometimes, after being on Facebook for a while, I end up feeling bad. I started investigating this phenomenon and came to the conclusion that being exposed to certain online content triggered irritation, doubt, craving and, sometimes, self-pity. Naturally, I would resort to taking a break for a while. Have you ever done that? It’s wonderful, isn’t it?

Eventually I would need to get on Facebook for one reason or another. We thrive on social interaction and social media offers a steady stream of connection with loved ones near and far. Thus the cycle would inevitably repeat. To be fair, it is impossible for me to avoid social media altogether. Even if it was possible, I don’t know that I would want to. But I am very mindful of how I use Facebook or Instagram. Based on my own experience and the experience of people I work with, I have complied a list of online social media behaviors and mindsets I believe to be the actual freedom thieves.

Poor internal boundaries

I often feel as if what I am consuming online is toxic but the real problem I think is my perverse attachment to consuming “toxic” material. It is almost masochistic really. Why do I have the tendency to focus on online material that disturbs my mind? After all, no one is forcing me to watch that video, read that article, engage in comment wars and so on.

I realized that my disturbed mind is a direct result of my inability to set boundaries with myself in a way that guards my mind as much as I guard my social security number. Avoidance really is bliss. Think about it, if something or someone is not appearing to your senses they do not exist for you.

Social comparison

A recent study found that the effects of social comparison on psychological well-being on social networking sites became positive or negative depending on whether the users’ social comparison orientation emphasized ability or opinion, and the type of emotions triggered by the comparison. Facebook users who compared to others they perceived had greater abilities than them reported depression and envy while those who compared down to others reported worry and sympathy. Conversely, comparing to others with similar opinions increased well-being by fostering optimism and inspiration 4.

The research on the negative role of social comparison on social media on mental health is substantial and perhaps I should dedicate an entire article on it. Personally, I think this comparison is mostly unfair because we are comparing others’ outside with our inside. Even if other people’s circumstances are objectively more favorable, how is feeling sorry for ourselves going to help things? It is important to remember that appearances can be deceiving so we need not take them so seriously. Also, instead of encouraging internal feelings of jealousy, we can choose to rejoice in the fortune and success of others. It makes a great deal of difference to our peace of mind and fosters positive interactions with others.

Obsessive self-concern

Have you ever changed your profile picture and then impatiently waited to see how many people would like it and what others would say about it? When we get tons of likes and comments we feel elated but if others ignore our posts or photos we feel down and sad. We may even get angry and resentful. These feelings aren’t coming from the actions of others but from a mind that is overly concerned with oneself. This doesn’t mean we are selfish. For all of us the self is central to our experience all the time. Consider the following: who did you think about when you woke up this morning? Whose needs have you been meeting all day (apart from your kids or dependents)? Who is in the center of every experience you have?

The answer universally is…ME.

Even in our sleep, the I/Me is always present for us. While we are caught up obsessing about who likes me, who doesn’t like me, etc so is everyone else. You are obsessing over the response to your post while everyone else is obsessing about your response to their post. I don’t know about you but for me self-concern always brings anxiety, irritation and disturbs my peace of mind. Thus I limit opportunities for more self-preoccupation and actively focus on generous e-giving of love, attention and appreciation and, yes, likes.

Although it is true that, as a person’s sense of self stabilizes over time, they are less motivated to change their behaviors to control others’ impressions of them, adolescents and young adults are often vulnerable to being consumed by impression management 5. More on this later…

In conclusion, social media is neither good nor bad, inherently. Ultimately, we are responsible for guarding our own mind through the careful investigation of our mental habits and actions online. And sometimes perhaps consider taking a break from it all.

Thank you for reading. Comment, like, share below. 

  1. Yuen, E. K., Koterba, E. A., Stasio, M. J., Patrick, R. B., Gangi, C., Ash, P., & … Mansour, B. (2018). The Effects of Facebook on Mood in Emerging Adults. Psychology Of Popular Media Culture, doi:10.1037/ppm0000178
  2. Clark, J. L., Algoe, S. B., & Green, M. C. (2018). Social network sites and well-being: The role of social connection. Current Directions In Psychological Science, 27(1), 32-37. doi:10.1177/0963721417730833
  3. Foster, M. D. (2015). Tweeting about sexism: The well‐being benefits of a social media collective action. British Journal Of Social Psychology, 54(4), 629-647. doi:10.1111/bjso.12101
  4. Park, S. Y., & Baek, Y. M. (2018). Two faces of social comparison on Facebook: The interplay between social comparison orientation, emotions, and psychological well-being. Computers In Human Behavior, 7983-93. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.10.028.
  5. Keep, M., & Attrill-Smith, A. (2017). Controlling you watching me: Measuring perception control on social media. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, And Social Networking, 20(9), 561-566.

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