Research into the psychological effects of social media is, as one would expect, a new and developing field. EPJ Data Science is one journal dealing with this and publishing research driven by the data-driven 21st Century.
One article recently published in EPJ Data Science by Johan Bollen and colleagues suggests that use of social media leads increased levels of dissatisfaction. Using statistical tools of the trade they measured levels of happiness by taking the last three thousand tweets of over four million twitter users and measuring how often they used extremely negative or extremely positive words. They also looked at how the users were connected by seeing whether they followed each other. Following this up with complicated maths they were able to measure ‘happiness’ via the tweets and ‘popularity’ by how many mutuals they had. What they found was evidence of what social media research calls ‘The Happiness Paradox’ and ‘The Friendship Paradox’.
The Happiness Paradox suggests that on social media, users are on average less happy than their friends. Likewise, the Friendship Paradox suggests that users are on average less popular than their friends. Common sense would tell any social media user that this isn’t surprising; particular users hold the monopoly on showing off how happy they are – that they seem to be doing something fun every day – and this ends up with them gathering more friends and followers. The net effect of this seems to be that the vast majority of people using social media end up less popular, and more importantly, less happy.
As with all science – it’s never that simple. Bollen and co. say at the end of their paper that these findings are above all observational. They can’t say what is causing what – let alone why this pattern is seen. The most amazing thing about this study is its pure mathematical power. This much data makes for an incredible sample size and generally a very reliable study.
Another study in the same vein found that Facebook distorts our perceptions of happiness. This study didn’t have as big a group of people providing the data: 425 undergraduate students at a Utah university filled out a questionnaire and the pattern observed here was that the longer you use Facebook for, the more you believe that your friends are happier than you.
Overall, the scientific consensus as of our time is that you should take social media with a pinch of salt. The digital age forces comparison of your life to other people’s lives, and more dangerously allows people to present their lives whichever way they choose. Take a step back from social media now and again; the sea might look blue in so-and-so’s uploaded holiday photos, but they’re not so likely to instagram the stray dogs or the corner of the beach filled with broken bottles and cigarette butts. And now, science is nearly capable of proving it.
Mentioned today in Headcandy;
- Johan Bollen, Bruno Gonçalves, Ingrid van de Leemput and Guangchen Ruan
The happiness paradox: your friends are happier than you
- Hui-Tzu Grace Chou, Ph.D., and Nicholas Edge, B.S.
The Impact of Using Facebook on Perceptions of Others’ Lives
- More about EPJ Data Science;
Week after week, columnists Sophie Mitchell and Harvey Moldon take it in turns to answer big questions with literature, or with science.