Almost twenty years have passed since the birth of the digital world (Berners Lee 1999).
The creation and subsequent rise of the Internet was revolutionary, comparable to the invention of the locomotive by Stephenson in the early 1800’s.
Needless to say, communication is one aspect of life which has been most significantly revolutionised by the Internet — getting in touch with one another is now cheaper, faster, and all-in-all easier.
Thanks to the use of social media, it’s safe to say that we have in fact reinvented the concept of communication. Since it’s able to be so far-reaching and instant, social media has naturally evolved into a potentially damaging uninterrupted connection.
With the spread of devices such as smartphones, smartwatches, and other gadgets alike, for most people, being connected has become something natural and automatic: there is no longer an on/off. We are never really disconnected, the only options contemplated are “available” or “occupied”.
Today computers are no longer a privileged means of accessing the Web. It is smartphones which have literally revolutionised the way we live.
With smartphones, there is no longer a time dedicated to internet use; it is a constant throughout everyone’s day, regardless of lifestyle, age, or profession.
It seems that most of us aren’t fully aware of the sheer amount of time that we spend online: the use is constant, and so ingrained in us at this point, we pay no mind. It’s not that we are unaware either — Apple’s recent feature rolled out to tell us our screen time. We have simply normalised constant use of our phones and social media so much that we don’t bat an eye at the hours spent daily scrolling away.
Being connected is a new way of life for the people of the new millennium, with its advantages, and despite its disadvantages.
In fact, while on the one hand the Web represents a means to quickly satisfy curiosity and connect to the leaders of the world, sometimes the relationship with the Web can turn into a real compulsion, often resulting in becoming more and more detached from reality.
This blog explores how the relationship with social media can become pathological.
But, what does having a “pathological” relationship with social networks really mean?
When we talk about social networks, the first thing we think about is probably Facebook. In reality, the social universe is far from being so circumscribed, but the fact is that Facebook was perhaps the first social network that gained the attention of the masses.
Facebook opened its doors to the public on September 26th, 2006 and ever since, anyone over the age of thirteen can register free of charge.
Over the years, several other social networks have been established, which have tried to depart from the initial format, proposing slightly different mechanics, but always aimed at creating a connection between its users.
The possibility offered by social partners to be constantly connected with friends and acquaintances and, more generally, with the entire virtual community, has meant that for many people, being active online has assumed the meaning of being active and participatory in society — therefore having a social profile liked and visited equates to being appreciated by people. A blog by my colleague Frances, (also on InSPIre the Mind), looked further into the impact of social media use, specifically its effects on adolescent mental health.
The idea that all our activity on social media is valuable in reality is continually reinforced to us: that having friends and being liked/followed online means being so also in the reality. That ‘likes’ mean popularity, on and off our phones.
Often these transitions between reality and virtual spaces take place because real human relationships are so complicated that shortcuts, such as social networks, are often received with open arms, especially if people have true difficulties in the relational context.
Social networks thus become a simpler but emptier world, in which having a substantial list of virtual friends (in reality, often including real strangers) brings greater fulfilment and satisfaction than the possibility of spending time with a real friend in the real word.
One study calls this generation the “generation Y”, a generation that is unconsciously defined by their dependence on social media, given the total symbiotic relationship between real and virtual life. It is evident from this study that the age group most involved in this is people between 12 and 25 years.
Older people (like me, although I am barely older than 25!) seem more difficult to capture within the social network world.
This is not because they are digital natives, given that this type of application is really within everyone’s reach, but probably because, given their previous experience, they may not be able to reach the same depth of communication with social networks as young people do. Older people find it more difficult to get confused between virtual world and real world, because they have typically experienced more relationships in the real world.
Social networks have brought many advantages and much progress, but we should not be so quick to dismiss, nor outright ignore, the problems brought on by it too.
”Engagement” is a term used in the research field of user experience, and represents the level of attention activation when interacting with a particular application.
The engagement on social networks specifically represents the need for participation. The social network has the power to create a sort of virtual alter ego for an individual. It creates a fictitious environment with characteristics that allow it to completely fit in with others who use it. This virtual reality therefore becomes preferred to the real world because it more easily confers security, personality and sociality.
Starting to prefer the virtual world to the real one, thanks to its charm as a “more effective” means of communication and socialisation, will result in a distancing from “face to face” relationships, undoubtedly indispensable for a healthy and balanced life.
The computer monitor or the smartphone display inherently anonymises us; any and all information we choose to share with the world online just acts to remove our “actual” individuality and instead create a fictitious version of ourselves, an alternate reality. This only goes to further isolate us from the real world.
FoMO — which stands for “Fear of Missing Out” — is the morbid fear of losing out on events or occasions that will be remembered. This is a concrete manifestation of social anxiety: the fear of being cut off from something big and therefore not being socially accepted in the group one would like to be part of.
Furthermore, with the term FoMO it is also possible to indicate “aura to be rejected”, connected to the fact that particular opportunities could be lost to establish new social ties.
Those who live these particular conditions do not realize that they are preparing for an inevitable isolation from real society, replacing the time spent with real people with the time spent online, and not realizing that the dimension of social networks is anything but social. This condition will only increase their sense of isolation, in turn increasing the level of FoMO.
In his research, he finds that:
FoMO is a driving force that influences the way social networks are used
FoMO levels are higher in young users, particularly male ones
Low levels of satisfaction (of one’s own life or needs) are linked to high levels of FoMO
FoMO is greater in those that are used to drive distractedly
FoMO is greater in students who use social networks during lessons.
Does dependence on social networks really exist?
The first studies concerning web addiction (IAD = Internet Addition Disorder) are attributed to the American psychiatrist Ivan Goldberg, who in 1995 identified the characteristic symptoms, today still considered valid, such as the need to spend more and more time on the net to get satisfaction, the marked reduction in interest in other activities that do not include the use of the internet, the development of abstinence symptoms, and the inability to stop or control the use of the internet.
Expendium of large amounts of time spent on activities related to the network.
Continue to use the internet, despite social, physical problems work or psychological caused by the network.
The symptoms indicated by Goldberg can all be seen in a person addicted to social media — and indeed in people with any addiction — in order to seek novel sensations and mood altering effects: to experience pleasure, satisfaction, improved mood and increased self-esteem, just as it happens for drug addiction.
Furthermore, the addiction to social networks, as well as IAD more generally, can occur in conjunction with other mental disorders, for example, compulsive obsessive disorders, depressions and alterations of mood. Similarly, IAD can exist alongside physical problems such as changes in the sleep-wake rhythm or a sedentary lifestyle with reduced physical activity.
Addiction to social networks can also indeed give rise to symptoms of abstinence and to an uncontrollable desire to implement the pathological behaviour — in this case, the excessive use of social network.
This condition has been labelled “nomophobia” : an uncontrollable fear of being disconnected from the network due to problems in connection or loss of device. The term is a combined word formed by “nomo” (that is, “no mobile”, or lack of cell phone), and “phobia”.
Although, at this point, one can think that dependence on social networks should be treated as a pathology in its own right, very few studies speak of “social network addiction”: The majority of studies speak of IAD or more generally of Internet dependence, and as unusual as it may seem, not all studies discuss the correlation between IAD and addiction to social networks, something which is relevant.
Nevertheless, it is indispensable to pay attention to the problem, to identify and help psychologically those who suffer from it.
Social media, being a problem, which is especially prevalent in adolescents, parents should be informed about the existence of this new psychopathological field in order to support and help their children before it becomes a problem.
At the risk of coming across as patronising, I want to it make clear that I am not here to demonise social media use nor to tell you not to use it.
As with any tool, it’s how we interact with it that can change it from being a utility to a threat. With anything we do, it is crucial to find balance — as we know, there is a difference between drinking a glass of wine and a bottle…
I began by talking about how social media has revolutionised the way we communicate and that will always hold true. Social media can be an incredible machine, we just need to know how to interact with it safely.
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