Adverse Effects of Computing Technology and Their Mitigation: Increased Alienation and Loneliness from Social Media Overuse
Humans have commonly been identified as a social species that rely on cooperative interactions to survive and thrive (Nature Human Behaviour, 2018). Innovations in modern technology and social media have risen through human collaboration. However, as social media platforms (SMPs) become increasingly prevalent, their associated consequences have also been on the rise. Mark Twain once said, "Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough." His quote rings true even today as research has shown that social media overuse has a direct correlation with alienation and loneliness.
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The official journal of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Depression and Anxiety, published a study in 2016 that concluded "Young adults with high SMU (or social media use) seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU" (Lin et al., 2016). In addition, research has shown that frequent Facebook use has relations to lower life satisfaction.
Although the original purpose of SMPs was to increase social interactions through technology and easily forge connections with people internationally, people who heavily use SMPs are now substituting off-line connections with technological connections. This substitution has consequently resulted in increased feelings of loneliness and inadequacy (Amatenstein, 2019). However, there may be ways to mitigate the adverse effects of social media overuse.
In a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, undergraduate students were randomly assigned to limit their use of SMPs. A correlation was found between limited social media use and lower levels of loneliness and depression (Hunt, Marx, Lipson, & Young, 2018). In addition, research has proven that individuals who have more virtues are less likely to feel alienated, contributing to both decreased smartphone addiction and a potential decrease in social media usage.
In the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, one article states that through research they have concluded: "Individuals high in the interpersonal virtue[s] are less likely to feel alienated and to overuse smartphones to alleviate negative emotional experiences" (Lian, 2017). Lian's research has opened a possibility that although social media overuse can increase alienation and loneliness, different factors can be targeted to ameliorate the negative effects of social media overuse. Overall, although the adverse effects of social media overuse are copious, there are still ways to mitigate them and use social media to an advantage.
Social media has slowly begun to consume the lives of many people. According to a news report from CNN and a study done by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, teens have been reported to spend nine hours a day using social media for leisure (Wallace, 2015). Even the average user still allocates 30% of their online time to social media interactions, amounting to roughly two hours a day (Wallace, 2015).
Although one of the most common reasons for using social networks is to pass spare time, all demographics are now devoting a substantial portion of their daily lives to networking, messaging, and updating people on SMPs (Young, 2018).
As social media usage increases, more studies are researching these adverse effects. A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that people who use social media frequently are also more likely to feel socially isolated (Primack, 2017). In a nationally representative sample of young adults, this increase in social media usage was strongly and independently associated with an increased perceived social isolation because of the influences of negativity bias. As SMPs continue to evolve to encourage more and more usage, the effects of negativity bias have become more and more prominent (Primack, 2017).
One study, from the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine's "Association Between Social Media Use and Depression Among U.S. Young Adults" studies almost two thousand adults from ages 19 to 32. These participants completed an online survey measuring their depression using the PatientReported Outcomes Measurement Information System (PROMIS).
From the results, 44.5% of the responses were placed in the low depression category, 29.2% placed in medium, and 26.3% placed in high (Lin et al., 2016).
Then, participants were asked to estimate the total time per day that they spent on the 11 most widely used SMPs for personal pleasure during leisure time.
Finally, other factors such as age, race, and education level were taken into account for a more holistic viewpoint of all covariates.
Ultimately, the study found a significantly positive linear relationship between social media use and depression. It should be noted that some previous studies have not found as clear of an association; however, the findings do agree with prior research on the relationship between social media use and mood dysregulation. (Lin et al., 2016).
One limitation of the study is that the directionality of the association between social media use and mood dysregulation was unclear. The research describes why individuals who had depression were more likely and more frequent to use social media: those with depression had a diminishing sense of selfworth which resulted in these individuals trying to fill their self-worth and validation through social media-based interactions.
Consequently, individuals began to suffer in a cycle of continuous guilt due to their extensive internet usage, resulting in even more internet usage to feel more validation. Subsequently, this fed into the cycle because with low values in personal abilities and negative feelings of self-worth, people were more likely to increase their feelings of depression (Lin et al., 2016).
Furthermore, multiple studies have found associations between social media use with declines in someone's mood, feelings of well-being, and how satisfied they are with life. According to Lin, passive consumption of social media can decrease feelings of bonding and someone's social capital, therefore increasing feelings of loneliness. An explanation of this phenomenon is that passive consumption of social media results in more exposure to "highly idealized representations" of other people and leads consumers to believe that others lead better and happier lives, which evokes emotions such as jealousy and envy. Inevitably, these feelings and emotions could then lead to people experiencing low life-satisfaction, negative feelings of self-worth, and depression (Lin et al., 2016).
Regardless of the directionality of the association, evidence still suggests that even if social media usage is not the root cause of mood dysregulation, social media interactions result in mood dysregulation furthering the cycle of low self-efficacy and negative selfappraisal. Although depression is not equivalent to social isolation or alienation, more studies have shown that social media overuse does result in a decrease in life satisfaction (Kross et al., 2013), self-reported physical health, and self-reported mental health (Shakya & Christakis, 2017). A new research-based focus on social isolation is just recently arising as more people are becoming aware of the adverse effects of social media overuse.
Sherry Turkle, the founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other describes the effects of social media overuse and isolation in a TED Talk. She begins by describing the changes that technology has made in human expression. In her presentation, she narrates the differences in the way that people share their thoughts and feelings previously versus currently. Previously, if any emotions or feelings arose, people would feel an urge to make a call and describe it to others. Currently, the urge has transformed to a form of instantaneous gratification through text messages.
Since previously calls would take up multiple minutes and were very expensive, people treasured these moments that they had with others. However now, because of how instantaneous information sharing is, people can share their thoughts and feelings immediately as they are experiencing them. The problem is, this results in a regime that Turkle describes as "I share therefore I am" which results in people feeling out of touch with themselves if they do not have a connection with other people. Therefore, to compensate people attempt to connect more and more with others which results in a trap of more isolation.
According to Turkle, people become more isolated because they become unable to live in solitude, or in her words "[y]ou end up isolated if you don't cultivate the capacity for solitude, the ability to be separate, to gather yourself" (Turkle, 2012).
People are now unable to understand themselves internally and are relying on other people to form real attachments and feel more alive. Other people then just become tools to support our internal emotions and are not properly or fully appreciated anymore. However, these false connections built with others has become the foundation of isolation because the desperation of connections cause people to build fake unstable relationships.
By building these fake relationships, people become unable to fathom the idea of being alone because of the quantity of relationships they receive and therefore put themselves even more at risk of feeling lonely.
Turkle's presentation demonstrates the clear cycle produced from an overuse of social media . When people do not feel connected off-line, people tend to attempt to create such a connection through social media and ultimately end up feeling more isolated because the connections are still not available. Researchers have found that participants who visit SMPs 50 or more times a week have three times the odds of perceived social isolation than those who went online less than nine times a week (Primack et al., 2017).
This perceived social isolation is likely to have sprouted from the desire to build relationships that frequent social media users have. However, the connections that they are attempting to create online are not the deep and meaningful forms of relationships most desire to have.
Ironically, the original intent of social media was to make people feel less lonely and more connected. In a recent survey conducted by The Cigna Health Insurance Company, 46% of respondents reported feeling some variation of loneliness. In the report, it was stated that when people use social media in moderation to keep in touch with friends and build off-line relationships, vitality and life satisfaction increase. However, spending multiple hours every day using social media can increase the feelings of loneliness and inadequacy, especially in young adults (Amatenstein, 2019). However, despite the negative results from the research on social media overuse, there are some benefits to controlled and reasonable social media usage.
Researchers Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe at the Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University have discovered that Facebook, a popular online social networking platform, has helped the formation and maintenance of social capital by bridging and bonding people together. Facebook is currently used as a method of communication between people in an online environment. Methods of communication such as Facebook Messenger, Groups, and Facebook Events have simplified many interactions allowing people to continue to build relationships and partake in experiences at a faster and wider pace. Through Facebook, people are frequently updated on the lives of their inner circles and other people of interest. Most importantly, Facebook usage was found to influence psychological wellbeing.
This suggests that, in moderation, Facebook has the potential to provide greater benefits for its users who are experiencing feelings of low life satisfaction and self-esteem (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007). Research concluded that the relationship between intensity of Facebook use and bridging or bonding social capital stems from the degree of a person's self-esteem and satisfaction with life (Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe, 2007).
In this study, people who did not interact frequently on Facebook and reported low satisfaction with life also reported having lower bridging social capital compared to Facebook users who used Facebook for maintaining former relationships. Ultimately, Ellison, Steinfield, & Lampe (2007) came to the conclusion that Facebook does have benefits and helps people maintain relationships as they move from one environment, such as high school, to another, such as college. These relationships built on a foundation of commonality in real life help people feel more connected to the community that they are leaving as they attempt to keep in touch through emails and Facebook.
In addition, the medical field has also concluded that as social media has become an integrated component of human interactions, the balance between encouraging positive use of social media and redirecting the problematic use is very important (Lin et al., 2016). Current public health practitioners use social media to their advantage by filtering out and detecting self-disclosures of depression on social media to promote awareness regarding maladaptive use and its association with mood disorders (Lin et al., 2016).
An example is seen through the decrease of stress in women when using social media. Researchers at Rutgers University and the Pew Research Center, found that women were 21 percent less stressed if they frequently used email, text, and social media compared to women who do not use these technologies (Hampton et al. 2015).
Although using SMPs have resulted in some positive relationships, the ultimate discussion of this paper is the adverse effects of overuse in social media and how to mitigate the feelings of alienation and isolation. Many research papers target Facebook as their primary SMP for research because of the sheer number of users that Facebook has; 85% of the internet users worldwide have a Facebook account (Ahmad, 2019), excluding China, therefore classifying Facebook as the most widespread social media platform (Tromholt, 2016).
In 2016, the journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, published a study that concluded that quitting Facebook leads to higher levels of wellbeing. The study had participants take a week-long break from Facebook and compared the levels of life satisfaction and emotional life. According to the study, there is causal evidence that not using Facebook leads to a higher level of cognitive well-being, life satisfaction, and emotional life.
The study also concluded that the way that people use Facebook could also impact their well-being. In the study, the findings indicate that instead of quitting Facebook altogether, people could also adjust their behavior on Facebook. The research indicates that adjustments to behavior are based on one's feelings when using Facebook. For example, if someone uses Facebook frequently for personal use, then decreasing Facebook usage is likely to increase well-being.
Furthermore, if feelings of envy arise from using Facebook, then the recommendation shifts to avoiding the places on Facebook that are causing these feelings to arise. However, if it is ultimately too difficult to change the behavior and usage methods of Facebook, then the best recommendation from this study is to consider quitting Facebook altogether so that any temptation is mitigated (Tromholt, 2016).
Consequences of extensive social media usage and its adverse effects are even more prominent in children now as there is an indirect correlation between the hours of daily screen time and psychological well-being (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). The study states that children in the age range of 14 to 17 years old were twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression or anxiety if they had a daily screen time of above 4 hours a day.
The increase in screen time also results in the possibility of addiction to the internet, gaming for an excess number of hours, or unhealthy amounts of social media use, all of which have been linked to low well-being (Satici & Uysal, 2015). In addition, spending more time online is strongly correlated with low well-being compared to watching TV or videos (Rosen et al., 2014), lending further credence to the idea of limiting their daily use of SMPs to increase one' well-being.
Furthermore, research has shown that having negative experiences on social media does have a correlation with higher levels of social isolation (Primack, 2019). However, this does not translate to people's positive experiences on social media, as there are no findings of lower levels of social isolation.
These results are consistent with the concept of negativity bias, which suggests that people have a tendency to place a greater weight on negative experiences compared to positive ones. Therefore, if people overuse SMPs and are consistently exposing themselves to social media, there is a possibility that people will experience more of both positive and negative experiences but only have real lasting impressions of the negative experiences leading to an increase in social isolation. This may result in feeling more socially isolated. Therefore, the more experiences that are acquired through social media usage, the more likely that feelings of social isolation will appear and magnify.
In addition to SMPs, feelings of alienation and social isolation might also stem from other issues such as smartphone addiction.
In 2017, the International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction published a research paper by Ling Lian from the Institute of Psychology at Xi'an Polytechnic University. Lian's research asserted that smartphone addiction is a new pressing mental health problem because of its association with sleep disturbances, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and pathological symptoms (Lian, 2017).
This has a strong correlation with social isolation and alienation as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania found. On a popular social media platform, Twitter, the posts which included the words "lonely" or "alone" were often found to be associated with linguistic markers of anger, depression and anxiety (Guntuku, 2019), which are all consequences of smartphone addiction. However, Lian's research encourages the idea that if people can develop the right virtues, this negative impact of smartphone addictions could be minimized.
Virtues are defined in Lian's research as a property of the whole person and the life that person leads (Peterson and Seligman 2004, p. 87). Since virtues are heavily influenced by culture, Lian's research focused on China where there are 96 different virtues. Three virtues, interpersonal, vitality and conscientiousness, were the chosen ones of focus in this research. Lian defines these virtues as:
[i]nterpersonal includes positive cognitions, emotions and behaviors associated with social interaction (e.g. teamwork, love, gratitude). Vitality reflects positive qualities associated with the world or society (e.g. curiosity, zest, hope). Finally, conscientiousness is intrapersonal and incorporates high willpower and self-control (e.g. prudence, self-regulation, perseverance).
It is important to understand the relationship between smartphone addiction and virtues because virtues produce and encourage positive personality traits in social interactions, satisfaction in life, and personal willpower. This, as a result, could also promote healthier relationships with smartphones. Alienation is defined as a negative sense of social estrangement and absence of a social support network or meaningful social connections with other people.
In Lian's research, the relationship between specific virtues and smartphone addiction would be influenced by alienation. Lian suggests that highly alienated individuals are more likely to have a negative correlation with the virtues of interpersonal, vitality, and conscientiousness. These individuals would also be more likely to express negative feelings, thereby being more susceptive to smartphone addiction.
Lian's research showed that the interpersonal virtue significantly and negatively predicted alienation, while conscientiousness significantly and negatively predicted smartphone addiction (Lian, 2017). This meant that as these two virtues increased, the negative effects decreased dramatically. The relevance of Lian's research in mitigating the effects of isolation and alienation in social media is through the possible connection between smartphone addiction and social media.
Addiction, regardless of the addictive substance, is difficult to combat. Addiction was formerly considered to be a form of dependence on a substance that would cause people to have urges to take the addicted substance and lose the ability to control how frequently they intake the substance (Koob, Arends, Moal 2014 page vii).
People who are addicted to certain substances have different social patterns, but some frequent ones are high social isolation, emotional distress, and a deficit of self-care which results in an inability to display and absorb emotions or recognize the consequences of lack of self-care (Koob, Arends, Moal 2014 page 11). These symptoms are very similar to the patterns that people addicted to their smartphones may exhibit.
Unlike smartphone addiction, these symptoms primarily appear with withdrawals. However, unlike other addictions, smartphone addiction's form of withdrawal is similar to the fear of missing out, fear that arises when they are not up to date with the events happening in their inner circles.
This can help us solidify the belief that some methods of rehabilitation that are effective in treating other forms of addiction may also be helpful for smartphone addiction. Scientists and psychologists have researched the mechanisms behind addiction and methods of combating it for years and for many different substances.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, some recommendations to decrease the effects of addiction is to be honest about the problem and accept that there is an addiction present (Melemis, 2015). Other recommendations are to develop coping skills for dealing with cravings and practice self-care by saying no. In addition, understanding that the discomfort is a part of the recovery process is integral in developing a healthier relationship internally so that stronger interpersonal values can arise and foster a healthier lifestyle. Furthermore, although these are general tips to help with recovery from addiction, ultimately it appears that focusing on reevaluating one's lifestyle and priorities will help the most with smartphone addiction.
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Individuals who have exceptionally low interpersonal virtues could potentially have difficulty establishing meaningful social connections, which could then end up resulting in higher alienation. To decrease negative emotions, smartphones and possibly social media can be used to increase feelings of belonging (van Deursen et al., 2015), but they also increase the risk of overuse. The basic functions of smartphones are to create opportunities to communicate with people in different locations and to compensate for real-life helplessness or loneliness by conversing with people while being physically apart (Lim and Shim, 2016). However, these basic functions could potentially be abused as this study strongly suggests that interpersonal and conscientiousness virtues play important roles in smartphone addiction by acting as positive psychological resources that prevent smartphone addiction.
These findings may be partially accounted for by problem-behavior theory (Jessor 1987), which asserts that character strengths and virtues affect interpersonal relationships, self-regulation, and behaviors. Specifically, individuals that presumably have high virtues also have increased interpersonal relationship quality and acquired high self-control; however, users with smartphone addiction lack social support and self-control (Marder et al. 2016).
From this study, we can see that virtues have a strong impact on alienation and smartphone addiction. Therefore, a possible way to mitigate the adverse effects of social media overuse could come from increasing people's interpersonal, vitality, and conscientiousness virtues by making sure that they participate in activities that give them experiences in gratitude, teamwork, curiosity, hope, self-regulation, and perseverance with enough support that these virtues can grow in each person.
An increase in virtues is difficult to facilitate at an older age. If older adults are uninterested in limiting their use of social network sites, another option that they have to decrease their feelings of alienation and loneliness is by changing the people that they interact with on SMPs.
The journal Cyberpsychology & Behavior published a paper on the relationship between internet use and loneliness in older adults. Researchers Shima Sum, Mark Mathews, Ian Hughes, and Andrew Campbell conducted an analysis to understand how Australians over the age of 55 years of age use the internet and how this affects their feelings of social loneliness. In their research, they concluded that there is a possible correlation between people feeling lonely and the amount of time they had spent on the internet. Furthermore, the purpose of their time online also had more potential relationships.
Their research showed that people who used the internet and SMPs to communicate with people in their inner circles, such as relatives and friends, were associated with significantly lower levels of social loneliness (Sum et al., 2008, p. 210). By contrast, if the participants used the internet to interact with new people, they were more likely to feel greater levels of loneliness (Sum et al., 2008, p. 210). Therefore, to mitigate the adverse effects of social media overuse, it is highly recommended for older adults, or even younger adults, to use social media as a method to keep in contact with relatives and close friends to decrease alienation and loneliness.
Another recommendation to mitigate isolation and alienation is to be mindful about and self-monitor one's time on social media. Jeremy Nobel, the founder of the Foundation for Art & Healing and the UnLonely Project, started an initiative to address the uprising of a potential mental health epidemic of loneliness and isolation affecting people nationally. Nobel is a believer of self-monitoring social media time due to its various benefits. By self-monitoring social media time, researchers have found that students have significantly less anxiety and fear of social exclusion. This could be from the lack of pressure that students feel once they decrease their social media usage.
It could also be due to the new goals that they are now able to focus on. As one study participant put it, "I ended up using [social media] less and felt happier… I could focus on school and not [be as] interested in what everyone is up to." The results from this research suggest that people should be more mindful of how they are using social media and the roles that social media has on people's lives. It is fine to do a quick check on what other people are doing or to keep track of social events to attend. However, it is significantly less healthy to use social media as a monitor for what individuals might possibly be missing out on.
As a social species, humans rely on cooperation and communication to survive and thrive. The thirst for interactions resulted in the creation of modern technology and thereafter social media. However, research has shown that social media overuse can result in adverse effects such as increased alienation and loneliness.
Through research, studies have shown that high social media use can result in people feeling more socially isolated compared to people who do not use social media often. In addition, other studies have shown that using specific social network platforms frequently was associated with a lower life satisfaction, which can then result in more feelings of loneliness.
Currently, people are now substituting their physical connections with technological connections, unfortunately resulting in increasing feelings of dissatisfaction and loneliness. However, there may be ways to decrease the emotions that have arisen as adverse effects. For example, research has shown that simply limiting the amount of social media usage leads to immediate benefits in life satisfaction while simultaneously lowering social isolation. In addition, encouraging people to participate in activities that revolve around the virtues of interpersonal, vitality, and conscientiousness can also increase someone's sense of belonging and decrease alienation.
Although there was no clear distinction on the directionality of social media overuse and feelings of isolation and alienation, studies did conclude that any directionality would result in a cycle of increased social media usage and increased feelings of depression, low satisfaction with life, loneliness, or isolation. Therefore, to break this cycle different studies have suggested multiple methods to reduce negative feelings after the overuse of social media or technology in general.
Even though using social media in moderation does have some benefits, we cannot state that overuse of social media has any benefits. Therefore, to mitigate the consequences of overuse of social media and reap the benefits of using social media, one recommended method was to quit using social media networks for a period of time.
By quitting SMPs, like Facebook, users can potentially experience a higher level of cognitive well-being, life satisfaction, and emotional life. If people are not interested in quitting social media networks altogether, studies have also shown that adjusting one's behavior on SMPs can have comparable effects. Furthermore, studies have also found that simply limiting the hours of daily screen time may prevent lower psychological well-being.
This phenomenon could potentially be because of negativity bias and the increase in frequency of negative experiences on social media if more time is spent. The last, and most progressive, method of decreasing feelings of alienation and social isolation may arise from people's values and virtues. Increased opportunities for social interaction can increase an individual's interpersonal virtues. This would encourage them to have more willpower and perseverance, ideals that align with the virtues of conscientiousness. Over time, people might be able to overcome their feelings of alienation because they are now less reliant on validation from social media.
If this is too difficult, then another recommendation is to focus on using social media to maintain relationships with relatives and friends instead of creating new connections with new people. Lastly, if all else fails, simply being aware and mindful of social media's role in our lives is enough to demonstrate a small but significant change in mitigating the feelings of alienation and loneliness that can affect anyone around the world.
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