Social media is really on my mind this week- I have several online presences; both personally and professionally. I find it hard to maintain them, but in this day and age, when most of our interactions with our friends seem to come from social media, what choice do we have? If you have your own business, then you will know as well as I, that it is essential to have a presence in the online world. But, how is this impacting us in our lives, and what impact is it having for our children?
Bare with me on this, and you will see where I am coming from- there is a psychological platform that is commonly used to study the psychological implications of social interaction called the Ultimatum game. The Ultimatum game relies on two people, one of which is in charge of dividing ‘resources’ between themselves and the other person who is the recipient (these resources can be anything- sweets, money, pencils, but it is usually money).
The person, who is dividing the money, is free to divide the resources in any manner they wish; the recipient can then accept or reject the first person’s offer. If the offer is accepted, say for example a 50/50 split, and then each party gets 50% of the resources. If there is a 70/30 spilt, and it is agreed, then the split is 70% to the divider and 30% to the recipient. If the recipient rejects the offer, then both parties get nothing.
The brain processes involved in the Ultimatum game were analysed (the most cited study of this is (Wout et al., 2006) ) and the results found that ‘unfair’ offers (offers 30% or less), when made by a human partner were rejected at a significantly higher rate than offers made by a computer. Thus suggesting that the participants involved had a much stronger emotional reaction to unfair offers from humans, than they did to the same offers from a computer.
So, what does that actually mean, and what does it have to do with Social media, I hear you ask! Well, this study shows that interacting with humans takes much more emotional involvement, and by default, more cognitive effort (the effort involved in making our brains work) than interacting with a computer.
So, again, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with Social media? Well, this generally means that interaction with a computer is easier for us, as it requires less emotional involvement and cognitive energy than talking to a human- when we talk to humans, 55% of our communication is through body language, 38% through tone and speed of your voice, and only 7% is actually through what we say (Aron, 1997). So when we interact with people, we are constantly paying attention to what is being said, but also the body movements, gestures, the tone of voice, the words that are being said and eye contact that is, or is not, being made.
This enables us to see and hear how people are feeling when they are speaking to us- that is not available to us when we are ‘talking’ from behind our keyboards! This means, to speak online, we need to use a lot less effort than we do when we are face to face- it is easier to hide our emotions online than it is to hide them in a face to face conversation.
By utilising Social media, the user is able to project a personality, expression, opinion, and a persona if you will, that may not be the same as the person that they ‘actually’ are. We all say things out of anger, or hurt, sometimes, but when we say it to the person themselves, we see the effect and reaction we get from being cruel- you do not get that when you are behind a screen.
When we are talking to someone who is in a particular emotional state, we are primed to enter that state ourselves (Dimberg, Thunberg and Elmehed, 2000)- meaning that when we are talking to each other, if our friend is sad, we are likely to become sad ourselves. This is sadly lost when interacting via a computer. Social media is a virtual form of interaction- meaning that the interaction takes on some of the qualities of being real, but is not in fact ‘real’. Therefore, how do we know what we are being presented with is in actual fact, real?
What’s so bad about that, then? Well, for most people, using social media is a form of remaining in contact, whether because there is a distance involved or you just want to let people know how you are doing- ever noticed how most people only really post when good things happen? As adults, we can generally regulate our use of Social media much easier than young teenagers or pre-teens can. Most children have access to the Internet now, and in particular Social Media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, Oovoo and other messaging platforms. Whilst they are happily posting away about how good there day was, how much they love their Bae, the ‘banter’ at school, or the fact that Zayn Malik has left One Direction (see, I really am ‘down’ with the kids!), these young people are posting their hearts and lives and loves out in the open, for all to see. It is amazing to me, how many young people’s online accounts are open access; enabling anyone to read them. Or the fact that parents do not seem to be checking what their children are posting to these platforms.
So, here in lies the problem- if a young person is posting on Social media that they are depressed, sad, excited or happy, how do we know that this is really happening? Haven’t you ever just sent a text saying ‘I’m good’ when in actual fact, you have a headache, feel poorly or tired, or are feeling a little depressed, stressed or anxious?
Social media can be a disingenuous way of communicating- the persona we are projecting may not be the persona we actually have, and so who is regulating this? As adults, we would like to the think that we would think twice before we posted something that could be, potentially, offensive. But, young people live in the moment, they speak from their heart and not necessarily their heads- if they are posting offensive comments, perhaps it is down to peer group pressure, and not the actual person they are; who actually does have a very different set of beliefs.
So, where do we go from here? Should parents check their childrens Social Media accounts? Do we need to teach, or remind, our children about self-regulation? We assume that schools are doing the job, but isn’t it also the caregivers responsibility? As shown by the Ultimatum game, we don’t respond to computers in the same way that we respond to people- although there is a person at the end of the Social media platform, perhaps it is easier to say things we don’t necessarily mean on a computer, and then have regrets after?
And what about us as adults? Who regulates us, when we are incapable of regulating ourselves? What we need to remember is that what we put out there on Social Media is there forever, even if we do delete it. Recipients or viewers can take screenshots and keep the information. Whatever you are preparing to say, be it to your audience, a friend or possible romantic interest, ask yourself these questions- would I say it to their faces, if I were stood in front of them? And if you would, how would it make them feel?
Aron, A. (1997) ‘The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings’, Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 23, no. 4, April, pp. 363-377.
Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M. and Elmehed, K. (2000) ‘Unconcious Facial Reactions To Emotional Facial Expressions’, Psychological Science, vol. 11, no. 1, January, pp. 86 – 89.
Wout, M.v.’., Kahn, R.́.S., Sanfey, A.G. and Aleman, A.́. (2006) ‘Affective state and decision-making in the Ultimatum Game’, Experimental Brain Research, vol. 169, Jan, pp. 564-568.