Social media is the best and the worst
My New Year's experiment based on the empirical evidence
I’ve never been good at New Year’s resolutions. Aside from my utter lack of willpower, it seems that I tend to adopt resolutions that don’t make me feel as good as I thought they would. I almost always drop them before the end of January.
In his book Stumbling on Happiness, psychologist Dan Gilbert argues that this is pretty normal. People are bad at forecasting what will make them happy:
“We treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy... But our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco, and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that. We fail to achieve the accolades and rewards that we consider crucial to their well-being, and they end up thanking God that things didn’t work out according to our shortsighted, misguided plan.”
Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness
So this year I am acknowledging the folly of throwing myself into arbitrary resolutions, and trying something different: I am going to do some experiments. Most of these experiments probably won’t move the needle on my happiness, but maybe some will—and maybe, after experiencing their positive effects, I will be more likely to keep them going.
The first experiment I’m starting with is limiting my use of social media.
Social media is the worst
It’s very rare that I get off Twitter after an hour and say to myself, gee that was time well-spent. Mostly, Instagram makes me feel like I’m not doing enough (my friend Aksel just posted pics of skiing in Slovenia…wait, should I be skiing in Slovenia?!). I am pathologically addicted to opening these apps when I had no intention to. I will pick up my phone to check the weather, and an hour later I find myself on the couch reading an Esquire magazine article about Keanu Reaves that someone posted on Twitter (literally, this was yesterday). Social media induces me to read the news far more than I should, or want to.
Aside from wasting my time, social media tends to disrupt my day, prevent the deep focus required to do anything creative or interesting, and pulls me away from living in the present. After being on social media—especially Instagram—I feel more unhappy, more restless, and more anxious.
There is plenty of academic evidence to suggest I’m not alone. Researchers have found that social media use makes people more stressed, lonelier, more envious of others, lowers their mood, increases their anxiety and depression, damages their self-esteem and their relationships, and ruins their sleep. Yikes.
And while social media might also offer some benefits, as productivity researcher Cal Newport argues in his book Digital Minimalism, its drawbacks outweigh these benefits:
…don’t accept the idea that offering some small benefit is justification for allowing an attention-gobbling service into [our] lives…
He argues that there are better ways of achieving whatever it is you’re trying to achieve by using social media. For example, if you are on social media to connect with friends, he recommends instead using a—gasp—telephone!:
You can be the one person in their life who actually talks to them on a regular basis, forming a deeper, more nuanced relationship than any number of exclamation points and bitmapped emojis can provide.
I don’t think any of this is controversial. Most of my friends and family have a tortured relationship with social media: they profess to want to get off it, or at least spent less time on it, yet don’t seem to be making any progress.
Are social media platforms really so adept at hijacking our self-control? Are we really so helpless? I’m not so sure.
Social media is great
The chart above speaks to a complexity that may be lurking here: for all its ills, social media seems to do something very good and useful for us, and to do it efficiently.
Despite the academic evidence about social media being bad for us, the picture is still mixed. It turns out that many studies also find some amount of social media use increases well being, and that the effects of social media depend heavily on how you use it (your “emotional engagement”) and who you are (wealthy white people benefit from social media more than poorer, non-white, users). Most studies find no statistically significant effect of social media use on happiness. And critically, in the ones that do find an effect, the direction of causality is unclear—does social media make us unhappier, or do unhappy people tend to use social media more?
I found two recent studies that seem to get at the heart of the matter. Researchers found volunteers who agreed to get off social media for a few weeks, for a payment (close to $100). They divided this group into a control group—who got no money and were not asked to change their behavior—and a treatment group who received the $100, who were asked to get off Facebook for a period of time—one week in one study, and one month in the other (their compliance was monitored).
What impact did this social media detox have?
Both studies found the same thing—getting off Facebook didn’t affect people very much: it slightly decreased the likelihood of depression and, unsurprisingly, freed up some time. But had little effect on anything else, including overall well-being, anxiety, worry, or happiness. Those who got off Facebook were no more productive.
The most interesting finding from these studies was this: after detoxing from social media, the amount of money the participants demanded to be paid to continue their detox didn’t go down. They didn’t realize how awful Facebook is, thank the researchers, and agree to forgo it for less money. Instead, the value they ascribed to social media went up. Although this might have been as much due to addictive effects of social media (after getting off it, users really needed their fix!), it surely also speaks to the genuine value of the platform.
As the researchers wrote:
Our results leave little doubt that Facebook provides large benefits for its users. Even after a four week “detox,” our participants spent substantial time on Facebook every day and needed to be paid large amounts of money to give up Facebook...Any discussion of social media’s downsides should not obscure the basic fact that it fulfills deep and widespread needs.
Putting bounds on Twitter and Instagram
The fact is, I think, that social media is not wholly bad, or good. It’s a twisted spindle of gold and garbage, and it’s impossible to untangle it.
I have unplugged from social media in the past, but I always come back. There are a few things I get out of it that I don’t want to lose entirely: visual inspiration from the art people post on Instagram; a handle on the economic topics that are being discussed on Twitter; people’s reaction to the news of the moment (yes, much of it silly and ephemeral); and the same stuff everyone seems to use social media for: staying in touch with friends and family.
I don’t think I’m ready to get off social media entirely, but I do want to be in control of how I interact with it.
So, in the spirit of experimentation, and the idea that social media is both good and bad, I am trying a new approach: I will continue to use Instagram and Twitter, but within certain parameters—at specific times of day, and for specific amounts of time. I’ll adjust these and see how it makes me feel.
I’ll let you know how it goes. In the meantime, tell me how you are managing your relationship with social media in the comments below.
And if you’re interested in some interesting views on this topic, check these out:
Recent randomized controlled studies I mentioned above, here and here
Dan Gilbert book and TED talk
Cal Newport book and TED talk
Oliver Burkeman’s book about why time management is ultimately a philosophical exercise
Farnham street on reading less news
Freakenomics (podcast) episode on why we consume so much news