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Year on year, more and more of us are signing up to social media and actively sharing what we’re up to. Even with rising negative press around its effects on our mental health and the way our personal data is being used, 45% of the world’s population is now active on social media – with the average UK user spending 1 hour 50 minutes per day scrolling through their social feeds.
Social media sites have been around for a long time now, and they’re not showing any signs of going away. With our increasing reliance on our smartphones and widespread mobile data availability, these figures are only expected to grow.
Many of us will have felt the urge to check our phone, but what psychological factors keep us coming back, and what effect is all our sharing having on our mental state?
Our need to feel involved
We are by our very nature social beings, so it’s no surprise that social media is so successful. We crave interaction with other human beings, and when we don’t get it, we can feel left out and isolated.
This is driven by more than a desire to socialise however – we need others to survive. Since our caveman days we have generally fared better in groups, and social media takes this concept to a modern extreme.
Being excluded can trigger feelings of panic and fear. The phrase FOMO (fear of missing out) has been coined to describe the worry that sets in when we think an interesting or exciting event may be happening somewhere else due to posts we have seen on social media.
Checking our social feeds is the first and last thing many of us do with our days, and seeing that people have interacted with us can makes us feel valued and involved. Conversely, seeing photos or videos from an event we haven’t been invited to can make us question our social standing, and send us on a downward spiral mentally.
When we share something on our social media profiles, we invite feedback. Seeing positive reactions pop up in our notifications gives our brains a shot of dopamine – a chemical once thought to create pleasure but now understood to cause us to seek it. The more likes we get, the more we want, and so on.
Most of us will admit that we want to be liked. The degree of reliance on social approval varies from person to person, but for some this can bring with it extremes of emotion when it comes to posting an update on our social profiles.
If a post performs well, we feel validated. If a post fails to attract attention, we may feel as if we are failing – and seeing our peers succeed only compounds this reaction and its impact on our self-esteem.
Controlling our image
We like to talk about ourselves, especially online. Face-to-face conversation gives us little time to think and can be awkward, but on social media we can control what we say and how we present ourselves. Feeding in to the previous point, showing ourselves in our best light means we are more likely to win approval from others.
The ease and speed with which we can share our lives with hundreds or more people on social media is much greater than in the outside world. This is particularly pertinent to important life events such as getting engaged. For instance, according to a recent study by UK jewellery retailer Goldsmiths, 47% of Brits would share their big news online within a day.
The study confirmed this desire for control too: 38% of those asked would be annoyed if friends and family revealed their engagement news on social media before they did.
With increased awareness of the potential impacts of social media on our mental state, more of us are taking breaks from social media or rejecting it entirely. Many younger people in particular are taking time out to reset, while the Goldsmiths’ survey found that 30% of those asked would now choose to keep their personal news private.
This trend comes amid growing pressure from government organisations to limit the power of social networks and restrict our reliance on likes.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the world’s first blog psychologist and founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and for other online publications.