Constant connection: the psychological impact of social media

Stephanie Sokol for OU News Bureau

More people are using social media and they’re spending hours longer on those sites when they get there.

Mashable reports the time spent on social media has hit 6.9 hours per month — more than double the time since 2006. And more than half of Americans have a social media profile, which also is more than doubled in the past seven years.

“(I like to use social media because) it’s a way of communication with classmates, relatives and friends who live far away,” Oakland University sophomore Ria Perez said. “I usually log on a few times a week.”

A change in relationships, social interaction

While social media and constant connection can be good, excessive use can lead

Meyers,Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

to issues, according to Erin Meyers, assistant professor of communication and journalism at OU.

“On one hand, social media has really opened up our communication channels,” Meyers said. “In instances it’s a good way to get in touch with friends and family, providing social benefit. But at the same time, it can also become so overwhelming, where you feel like you’re always having to be connected and can’t take a moment to yourself.”

David Schwartz, OU Counseling Center director, meets with students who are experiencing issues with school, stress and anxiety. In his work, he said he has seen an impact on students’ lives and social interactions.

“There are situations where people have had unintentional consequences from stuff they’ve posted online, in terms of causing stress in relationships,” Schwartz said.

“The difficult thing is that it’s hard to express yourself the same way you would in person. Often times, things can get misrepresented or misconstrued by the person who is reading it when it’s been posted, which can cause relationship problems, too.”

He’s seen many situations where social media has magnified problems, including stress from defriending and blocking, or students catching their significant other cheating online. Bullying also occurs.

“(You see online) a lot of the same problems you see outside of social media, but they tend to get magnified more or exacerbated because of it, and can be a breeding ground for some unhealthy communication styles,” Schwartz said.

Impact on self-image and self esteem

Another issue caused by social media is the impact it has on young people’s self-esteem.

Pinterest provides users with “pin boards” where they can post their future plans. While the social media site supplies an outlet for aspirations, Meyers said frequent usage can cause people to hold themselves up to an unreal standard.

She also brought up how people view others’ lives based on Facebook posts that show things such as marriages, travel and babies. They compare it to their own and feel they come up short.

“Realize there’s ways that people are presenting themselves online that might not actually be true or possible,” Meyers said.

Louis Mark Carrier is a psychologist based out of California with a focus in social media.

His team studies and surveys large groups of people about social media’s impact. Their conclusions have yielded both positive and negative effects.

“I think there’s always a bunch of different things going on with social media,” Carrier said. “People compare themselves to others, and that can have negative effects. For example, if you don’t feel as attractive as someone else, that can be bad. But there are also positive effects, as well.”

In research, they have discovered that social media attracts and fuels certain personalities.

Narcissists use websites such as Facebook to create the ideal image for themselves, Carrier said. The option to control what is posted on one’s wall, untag certain things and take multiple profile photos makes positive image manipulation more convenient, especially with the convenience of mobile phones.

A study by the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business found that “when people are using or thinking about their phones they are less likely to engage in prosocial behavior (an action intended to benefit another person or society as a whole).”

Affect on anxiety and sleep habits

The addition of smartphones has also contributed to trouble sleeping.

Carrier said there’s a link between social media usage and trouble getting to bed at night. It’s often tied to mobile usage.

“It’s pretty clear in other studies,” Carrier said, “that people who are addicted to their devices are going to be waking up a lot in the middle of the night, especially if they don’t turn off their ringer, or if they keep the phone close to them — some people even have the phone in bed with them, keeping notifications on.

“All those interruptions are problematic,” he continued. “It’s not just about losing sleep. The more you get interrupted during the night, the more problems you have the next day and psychologically, can’t wire in.”

A study from Biomedical Central found that “frequent mobile phone use was associated with current stress, sleep disturbances, and symptoms of depression among the young adult men and women in cross-sectional analysis.”

The study suggested that high usage of mobile phones for communication were parallel with stress, sleep disturbances and depression symptoms in young men and women.

Schwartz,Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

Schwartz said students who visit his office have many sources of stress, and while it is still early to tell, social media is becoming an essential part of students’ day-to-day lives and is making an impact.

“It’s probably very early on (to know for sure) but from the perspective of someone working in the field, I can definitely tell you we’ve met with students who have been significantly affected in a variety of different ways by the use of social media,” Schwartz said. “Like anything, there’s potential for harm or abuse, if it’s not used appropriately in a healthy or proper way.”

Breaking the habit

While many people turn to social media excessively, addiction isn’t common.

Carrier said the sign of a problem is leaving social media and going back, then having a relapse. When people develop problems focusing at work because of the distraction, or ignore their family to spend time online, they may be addicted.

Eight percent to 10 percent of users are considered to have an addiction, according to Carrier. The first step is recognizing the problem.

“One of the things you can do is substitute healthy behavior for addictive behaviors,” Carrier said. “So instead of going on Facebook, take a nature break by going outside, going for a walk, taking your camera out and taking photos. Research shows that doing that is really good for your brain. It allows you to refocus and gets rid of some of those addictive tendencies.”

Social media may be playing a big role in people’s lives, but it has positives, Myers, Carrier and Schwartz agreed. Beyond social connection, it brings people together and provides an outlet for writing and self expression, according to Meyers.

“The technology itself is not good or bad — it depends how you use it,” Meyers said.

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