It is hard to peruse Facebook today and not do a few comparisons. Yet according to research led by computer scientists at Indiana University, the conclusion that most of us arrive at when we log into services like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram is: everyone else looks like they’re having more fun.
Randomly selecting 4.8 million Twitter users Johan Bollen, associate professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing and his colleagues then analyzed the group for people who followed one another on the network, creating a social network of about 102,000 users with 2.3 million connections.
The team then narrowed their focus to individuals with 15 or more “friends” on the network, which created a group of 39,110 Twitter users. They then analyzed the sentiment of these users’ tweets, a common method in computer science and marketing to assess whether digital postings are generally positive or negative in tone. Users with higher positive sentiment were defined as “happy.”
For the purposes of this study, which used publicly available data from Twitter, reciprocal followers were defined as “friends” and users with the most connections were defined as “popular.”
A statistical analysis of that final group found that 94.3 percent of these users had fewer friends on average than their friends. Significantly, it also found that 58.5 percent of these users weren’t as happy as their friends on average (Bollen et al., 2017).
Bollen explains, “In other words, a majority of users may feel that they’re less popular than their friends on average. They may also have the impression that they’re less happy than their friends on average” (Bollen, 2017).
“This analysis contributes to a growing body of evidence that social media may be harmful to users who ‘overindulge’ in these services since it’s nearly impossible to escape negative comparisons to their friends’ popularity and happiness” (Bollen, 2017).
Part of the problem, especially with Facebook is what is known as the Friendship Paradox, which finds that most people on a social network have fewer connections on average than their friends, since the most popular users intersect with a higher-than-average number of social circles. And this study is the first to reveal that these more popular users are also happier on average, inflating the overall happiness level of a user’s social circle – an effect Bollen calls the “Happiness Paradox” (Bollen, 2017).
Bollen explains, “Social media users are not only less popular than their friends on average but also less happy. This study suggests that happiness is correlated with popularity, and also that the majority of people on social networks aren’t as happy as their friends due to this correlation between friendship and popularity” (Bollen et al., 2017).
“Social media users may experience higher levels of social dissatisfaction and unhappiness due to negative comparison between their and their friends’ happiness and popularity” (Bollen, 2017).
Interestingly, the study also found that social media users tend to fall into two groups: happier users with happier friends and unhappier users with unhappier friends – and the unhappier users were still likely to be less happy than their unhappy friends, suggesting they’re more strongly affected by their friends’ unhappiness (Bollen et al., 2017).
Bollen explains, “Happy social media users may think their friends are more popular and slightly happier than they are – and unhappy social media users will likely have unhappy friends who still seem happier and more popular than they are on average” (Bollen, 2017).
Yet according to research done by Professor Samuel Veissière from the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University, Canada and colleagues, a common theme among the most addictive smartphone functions – and the dysfunctional use they result in — is a desire for connection.
Together with Moriah Stendel, also from McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, Professor Veissière reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens. What Veissière, who is a cognitive anthropologist who studies the evolution of cognition and culture found is that the desire to watch and monitor others – but also to be seen and monitored by others – runs deep in our evolutionary past (Veissière & Stendel, 2018).
As Veissière explains, humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behavior, which also serves as a way for them to find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity (Veissière & Stendel, 2018).
While Veissière and Stendel agree that that the pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushes the brain’s reward system to run on overdrive, which can lead to unhealthy addictions, the underlying drive is a desire for connection – it is what he calls hyper-social, not anti-social (Veissière & Stendel, 2018).
He explains, “In post-industrial environments where foods are abundant and readily available, our cravings for fat and sugar sculpted by distant evolutionary pressures can easily go into insatiable overdrive and lead to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease … the pro-social needs and rewards [of smartphone use as a means to connect] can similarly be hijacked to produce a manic theatre of hyper-social monitoring” (Veissière, 2018).
“There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic. We’re trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive – and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this” (Veissière, 2018).
While Veissière and Stendel do suggest turning off push notifications, setting up appropriate times to check your phone, and workplace policies that prohibit evening and weekend emails, perhaps the biggest change we can make is in the way we see social media use – as a desire for connection on overdrive.
“Rather than start regulating the tech companies or the use of these devices, we need to start having a conversation about the appropriate way to use smartphones” (Veissière, 2018).
Through becoming more aware of the ways social media affects us and how it can be used in positive ways, taking a break, and recasting our addictive use as an evolutionary need for connection, we can begin to better understand how to structure our use to avoid the many potentially negative effects of digital media.
The first step might be to put down the smartphone — and the negative social comparisons it might lead to — and reach out a connect in a real way.
Photo by MadFishDigital