As a student of psychology and the brain, I’m intrigued by the effects that social media has on people’s perceptions of their self-worth. All of the social networks out there measure, at least to some extent, the level of popularity, reach, or ‘effect’ that each of our interactions has with our online community. Twitter has its “this person Retweeted your Tweet to X amount of people!”. Facebook has likes, comments, and shares. Instagram and LinkedIn both also have likes and comments. Even Reddit, the holiest of social networks, has karma points for each user. But why? What for? Is a social network that fails to do this not a ‘social’ network? Would such a social network fail? How important are ‘likes’ and whatnot to our actual self-esteem? Do we value these electronic forms of pseudo-kudos and online popularity the same way we value real-life interactions? So many questions…
I’m not alone in asking these questions. The University of Salford in the UK did a study last year on social media’s effects on self-esteem and anxiety, and reported that 50% of their 298 participants said that their “use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter makes their lives worse”. If you’re like me and you’re all like OMFGWTF, then consider this: the study also reported that participants also said that their self-esteem suffers when they compare their own accomplishments to those of their online friends. (Suddenly, this starts making more sense.) In addition to this, a quarter of participants cited work or relationship difficulties because of “online confrontations”, and more than half reported that they feel “worried or uncomfortable” when they can’t access Facebook or email. In sum, this study concluded that social media causes low self-esteem and anxiety.
Another study, this time by the University of Pittsburgh and the Columbia Business School, found that users who are “focused on close friends” –I’m not exactly sure what that means because I’d consider only about .05% of my friends on Facebook as ‘close’– “tend to experience an increase in self-esteem when browsing social networks and afterwards display less self-control”. While this study goes on to correlate higher social network use with higher body-mass indexes and higher levels of credit-card debt (anybody else find that inaccurate and somewhat hilarious?), I think it’s main argument hits the spot: positive comments on social media can and do boost self-esteem and thus, influence user behavior.
But let’s go back to my original questions. Given the information above, as well as this Daily Beast article about how overnight Internet fame caused Jason Russell (the man behind the Kony 2012 video) to be diagnosed with ‘temporary insanity,’ I think it’s safe to say that yes, ‘likes’ and other positive social network interactions are pretty important to our sense of self-worth. If they’re important enough to drive you insane (and don’t forget, make you fat, anxious, and in-debt!), it seems like we might value these electronic social interactions as even more valuable than real-life interactions. And while I think it’s important to make distinctions between social interactions with people you know (i.e., Facebook and other ‘closed’ networks) and with people you don’t necessarily know (i.e., Twitter and other ‘public’ networks), I think this is mostly true.
I guess the truth is we all want to be heard, or at least, we like love to be heard. I’ve heard friends of mine say that Twitter is stupid because it’s just a way for people to validate their self-worth. Now, I can safely say that it may be, but then again so are all forms of ‘social’ media, and many other forms of social interactions, for that matter. I don’t think social media is what drives us to forever seek external validations of self-worth, but that it merely facilitates it. Given the power, it’s up to the individual to determine how to use it: On one hand, you have the annoying, snobby girl from high school posting selfies, being all like “OMG yoga in the morning then froyo and shopping at LV with my bestiess!!”. On the other, your friend who just got the job she’s been stressing about for a month, celebrating.
Some questions remain unanswered, however. Would a social network without a feedback mechanism still be a social network? Imagine a scenario in which one person walks up to his/her friend in excitement over something important –let’s go with the above example that this person got the job he/she really wanted–, and the friend says nothing. The friend just stands there, idly, not expressing emotion. The friend can clearly see and hear the excitement, yet stares blankly at this person who is screaming in his/her face. Now, imagine that the friend really wants to say something, but is physically unable to. The intent is there, but lacks a medium for expression. This is what comes to my mind when I think of a social network with no feedback mechanism. Sure, you could pick up the phone and call your friend to congratulate them, but if your friendship isn’t close enough for that, then you have no means of expressing your content, however light or intense it may be. But, if you and this ‘friend’ are close enough to call, then there really is no need for a so-called “social” network to mediate your communication to begin with. In other words, such a network wouldn’t have much “social” value; it would be just a bunch of people pointlessly talking about themselves. Such a network would be a one-way street of communication, and that’s not really “socializing”.
Would such a network fail? I have no idea. On one side, why would anyone share information with others if there’s no way for you to know what anyone thinks? And on the other side, this network would be free of all of those “look at me being a spoiled brat” posts, because come on, the only reason people do that is to fish for likes. Regardless, the value of social media is so because it facilitates two-way communication between you and a larger audience than you would otherwise not have physical access to.
My opinion on the matter is that, since the urge to use social media as a way to validate self-worth exists in all of us because it works, the way a person chooses to use social media says a lot about their personality. We all have a person (or two) that comes to mind when thinking about someone who posts for the sake of getting ‘likes’, and I think you’d agree with me that it gets annoying really quickly. It’s up to us to determine the way we use social media, but most of the time we don’t bother to take a look at our online behavior from an objective point of view. So, do so, and you may learn a little (or a lot) about yourself and how much you look to social media for your self-esteem. If you find yourself to be similar to that annoying person you thought of above, then maybe you should take a few days off of social media. If not, then that’s great, but you shouldn’t brush this exercise aside as a one-time reflection. We’ve all been guilty of boasting about ourselves on social media at some points, and while there are times when it is appropriate, we should be careful that the urge to do so doesn’t dictate how we behave on social networks.