Julie Roosa September 20, 2017

By Jared Neal

Guest Columnist

“Making the world more connected” sounds uplifting, but all good things come with a catch. Social media is making us feel depressed. And it is up to you to do something about it.

I am no stranger to technology. I was born in 1995, where the line between millennial and generation Z begins to fade. I grew up with social media. Mark Zuckerberg released Facebook 1.0 onto the world when I was only nine years old.

Having used Facebook since the sixth grade, I was lucky to witness social media’s rise firsthand. Now, seeing the current debate on internet privacy has led me to ask: why is social media so important to us?

In 2008, the average American spent twenty minutes per day on a mobile device, according to SmartInsights, a market research firm. By 2015, that number increased tenfold. We also increased time spent on other devices, including desktops, laptops, and other internet-connected devices since then.

Much of the growth in mobile phone usage may be attributed to social media’s meteoric rise. 29% of time spent online among adults was spent using social media (Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.). This number is notably higher for millennials, at 41%. Social media does what radio and TV, cannot. It allows us to use our phones to satisfy our interpersonal communication needs. It is easy to socialize when we have the entire world at our fingertips. Nowadays, parents punish their children by taking their phones away and forcing them to go outside.

Is our need for social interaction just another problem that the phone solves for us? Let us not forget the reason the phone was invented in the first place– to connect us with people around the world.

Sound familiar?

Companies like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram have managed to capitalize on making human connections. But what exactly does it mean to “make the world more connected?” After all, the phone did just that- it allowed us to communicate with anybody anywhere in the world, if they too can afford a phone. Not all has changed, I suppose.

Social media does what radio and TV cannot. It allows us to use our phones to satisfy our interpersonal communication needs. It is easy to socialize when we have the entire world at our fingertips.

When we sign onto Facebook, we agree to consume anything that may be put in front on our screen. When you “friend” somebody, that person has instant access to your attention. I’m sure that each of us, at some point, have chosen to ignore a phone call. Maybe you were mad at the person calling, maybe your hands were full at the time, or maybe you decided the number calling was not worth your time. But when we decide Facebook isn’t worth our time, we potentially miss hundreds of events, ideas, or opportunities. What if the company you work for put important information on the group page? What if a good friend invited you to a party? What if a relative just uploaded pictures of her newborn baby? At times, it seems we stand too much to lose if we decide not to open Facebook. In a way, we must decide either to take all the phone calls, or none of them. Thus, many people suffer from the most widespread phobia of the 21st century, the fear of missing out.

Is the proliferation of social media actually a bad thing, or are social media’s critics just guilty of being out of touch? According to a study in 2016, we may be paying a psychological price when we sign onto Facebook. Social media use was significantly associated with increased depression. Specifically, people who frequented social media apps reported higher feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and worthlessness than those who used Facebook less. Still, an argument could be made that people who already have feelings of depression use social media as a sort of self-prescribed remedy. The correlation between social media use and depression could be described in one of two ways:

“Social Media as a Solution”: We feel depressed, so we use social media more frequently to connect to others and entertain ourselves.

“Social Media as a Cause”: We use social media more frequently, which leads to increased feelings of depression.

While most social media companies embrace the view of “Social Media as a Solution”, other research suggests that it is the cause of increased depression.

Ethan Kross of the Emotion and Self Control Lab at the University of Michigan found that a decline in reported emotional well-being over time did not predict an increase in social media use. On the contrary, increased use of social media over time accurately predicted reports of decreased emotional well-being.

In other words, we aren’t taking the pill because it makes us feel less depressed. The pill is the very thing making us feel depressed in the first place. In fact, Ethan Kross and his colleagues could predict how depressed people would feel just by looking at how much time they spent on Facebook.

When researchers found that they could accurately predict crime rates among communities just by measuring how much lead paint was in the average house there, paint companies eventually began offering non-lead based alternatives. Is Facebook working to offer their users a “lead-free” experience?

To put it bluntly, no. Not yet, at least. It seems that they are in denial of the problem. To understand why, we must first understand how a social media company (i.e. Facebook) turns a profit.

To any mass-media conglomerate, viewing time equals advertising revenue. Unlike when we watch television, social media engineers can tell exactly how long you’ve been online. According to Tristan Harris, ethicist and Silicon Valley insider, thousands of engineers are continuously working to figure out how they can squeeze 1% more of your time out of you. Your time spent on social media, down to the second, equals advertising revenue in their pockets.

In 2014, Facebook did an experiment on nearly 700,000 users to determine if emotional states could be controlled by pushing emotionally depressing or uplifting content to the front of peoples’ screens.

The experiment made the National Academy of Sciences so queasy, they included a page-long preface to the publication to express their ethical concerns, while also pointing out that Facebook is bounded only by its own data use policy, not the US Department of Health and Human Services Policy for the Protection of Human Research Subjects, or the “Common Rule”.

Meaning the research subjects were not given the opportunity to opt out of the research.

As it turns out, you can learn a lot very quickly when you write your own ethical guidelines. Facebook found that emotions were indeed contagious over social media networks, and the side-effect of subjecting users to emotionally-charged content was slightly increased time spent on social media.

One year later in 2015, Facebook filed a patent for an algorithm that targets you with content based upon your facial expressions.

Your time spent on social media, down to the second, equals advertising revenue in their pockets.

Clearly, social media companies have a personal stake in maximizing our time spent online, so it is up to us to moderate our time spent on social media. There’s no need to delete all your social media accounts; instead, learn how to use them only when doing so truly benefits you. Ask yourself, when am I using social media, and when is social media using me? After all, it doesn’t take a room full of psychologists and engineers to convince you to catch one more fish, to meet one new person, or to ride your bike one more mile. The best things in life come naturally.

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Jared Neal is from West Des Moines. He graduated from DMACC in August 2017 and transferred to Iowa State, where he will earn an undergraduate degree in engineering. He wrote this column in Summer 2017 for a leadership assignment in an Honors Capstone seminar.