Home Mental Health & Well-Being Social Media and the Quantified Self

Social Media and the Quantified Self

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Maybe it’s the company I keep online, but every day there seems to be more and more posts appearing on my timelines about health, fitness and well-being. On any given day, when I look at my timelines and newsfeeds, I note that many of my friends are sharing the fact that they are running (from jogging to marathons), doing crossfit, attending the gym or a personal trainer and eating healthily.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Like with most things to do with social media, it is in early days. Research is in its infancy, care needs to be taken and we need balance in our discussion around the subject.[/perfectpullquote]

It is true that some people in my social media echo chamber are ‘of a certain age’ and because we are being constantly reminded of our mortality, have begun to take better care of ourselves. There is also the ‘algorithm’ debate – that searches which I make influence the information which appears when I am on social media. But, let’s assume, for a minute, that my ‘friends’ list is a quasi representative sample; are people turning to tech and social media to help them with their health and well-being goals and, if they are, is there evidence to support this approach?

There are thousands of apps available which allow users to connect and track performance. Some of these apps which, along with providing health and medical information, present objective anatomical information. Even the most basic applications for mobile devices allow users to measure sleep, diet, exercise, weight, mood, medication and numerous bodily functions. Additionally, realising the importance of a motivational and support component to the process, quite a few of these applications have reward systems (badges, points, or counters) and functionality where collected data can be shared on social media. These apps can be helpful for those trying to get into shape, with even simple smartphone apps helping to significantly increase physical activity (With the data the apps collect, workouts can be tracked, goals can be set and progress can be monitored.

Health psychologists tell us that monitoring, planning, and goal setting are all important factors in changing behaviours. Further, if users engage on the social level, interactions with friends can trigger action and the support received from others can help motivation.

Monitoring our health and maintaining healthy behaviour electronically is not new; we have been doing it since the 70s. Developments and advancements in technology and the rise in popularity of social media, in the last decade, has created a new paradigm, though – the intersection between the quantified self and social media. It’s all well and good using apps and mobile devices to monitor and maintain behaviour, but when we go online, or when we interact with others, or click ‘share’ and our new, changing behaviour is proclaimed to our social circle, something different is happening.

From my own limited experiences, participating in Twitter chats and ‘liking’ the Facebook page of my local Parkrun has already linked me to like-minded people; novice, amateur fun-runners. Getting updates on times, event information, and other runners has inspired and motivated me. Checking my timings, aiming to set a new ‘personal best’ and achieving that, has given me a sense of achievement and I feel good!

So far, research into the reasons why people use self-tracking digital devices for health is limited – research into why people share their health, fitness and well-being information on social media, even more so. In the US, the Pew Research Center have found that 21 per cent of the adults surveyed report monitoring their health (weight, diet, exercise, blood pressure or medical symptoms) using technology; a medical device (8%), app or tool on a mobile device (7%), computerised spread sheet (5%) and website or online tool (1%). Further, 20 per cent of respondents had downloaded an app to a mobile device to manage and monitor their health behaviour (weight, diet, and exercise).

Even though a recent study has found that wearing a device which monitors and provides feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioral weight loss approaches and may result in less weight loss over two years, benefits to wearing these devices have been uncovered. It has been shown, for instance, that aside from the perceived usefulness of the equipment, self-regulation, social motives and enjoyment explain why some people use these trackers.

It is likely that those who use this technology will, in some cases, share their information of social media; you are encouraged to do so. So far, social media is loaded with inspirational images. Pictures of fit, healthy, active, thin, attractive people running and training effortlessly, eating picture-perfect meals abound. Motivational ‘before and after’ stories appear regularly and, while much of this content is intended to inspire, it can have a negative effect. One can’t help but compare oneself to these ‘fitstagrammers’ and, while it has been shown that ‘fitspiration’ images have a positive effect on motivation to pursue healthy goals, these images can have a negative effect on body image and they can decrease body satisfaction. Moreover, Facebook social comparison has been negatively associated with subjective well-being.

Like with most things to do with social media, it is in early days. Research is in its infancy, care needs to be taken and we need balance in our discussion around the subject. Care needs to be taken when taking inspiration from people online. As we discovered last year, with the Essena O’Neill saga, it is very easy to set up a blog or an Instagram account; near perfect pictures are easy to produce; it’s very easy to dispense advice; it’s very easy to make recommendations. It’s not so easy to qualify as a dietitian, sports psychologist or for that matter, a mental health professional. And that ‘Instalife’ may not be what it seems.

The intersection between technology, the quantified self, and social media is exciting, though; not just for users, but for research. Extant theories around reward, punishment, motivation, comparison, etc are going to be able to explain a lot, but research on this truly modern paradigm could also shed new light on human behaviour.

Cormac Ryan is a doctoral researcher at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG). As part of the Child & Youth Research programme at NUIG, his research examines the well-being outcomes of the social media experiences of young adults. If he wasn’t doing this, he’d be playing golf.  You can connect with him on Twitter @cormac114 



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