Social Media & The Perversion of the Human Psyche

This past year, I took a class on human emotion. The material covered in this class sparked a multitude of thoughts, questions, and interests for me — some grew and faded, some were answered in discussions, some exhausted in the readings. Now that the course has drawn to a close, I find the interest that has remained constant is change.

The modern man appeared on Earth around sixty six million years ago. Since then, while research on emotion has grown and flourished exponentially, the emotions we experience and the capacity we have for those experiences have remained relatively constant. Constant, that is, until the dawn of social media. Here, we see the first signs of change. Social media appeared in 1997, with the creation of Six Degrees. It was the first online platform that allowed regular people to upload a profile and interact with other users. In 1999, we see the formation of blogging sites. From then until now, we have facilitated such a rapid growth for social media that it has mutated and perverted itself into a monster with a tentacle wrapped around every aspect of life in the developed world.

One of these tentacles, I’ve found, has a chokehold on human emotion. In 2014, Adam Kramer, Jamie Guillory, and Jeffrey Hancock discovered experimental evidence of massive-scale (N = 689,003) emotional contagion through social networks via an investigation of Facebook. Emotional contagion is when one person’s emotions and behaviors directly trigger similar emotions and behaviors in other people. This phenomenon is extremely common in not only the human experience, but that of other primates, and even dogs. A benign example is through motor mimicry, an unconscious synchronization of one’s expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with an individual close to them that has been linked to the reflected experience of emotions. However, in Kramer, Guillory, and Hancock’s study, emotional contagion was occurring “without direct interaction between people… and in the complete absence of nonverbal cues.” When positive expression was reduced in the News Feed, people produced fewer positive and more negative posts; when negative expression was reduced, the opposite transpired [percent of negative words decreased by B= -0.07%, percent of positive words increased by B= 0.06%]. The facilitation for emotions to spread not only outside of in-person interaction, but through a network, is relatively brand new, and, as Facebook was only founded in 2004, we have yet to see the long-term consequences of this phenomenon.

Another conventional human experience mutated by social media is social exclusion. Fitting into a given social group is a basic human need, and rejection from one of these groups is incredibly phenomenologically, neurologically, and psychologically taxing, and has been proven to equate to physical pain. In fact, some cultures utilize the extremity of this pain in lieu of the death penalty, as examined in John Braithwaite’s studies on reintegrative shaming. Through social networking, however, this already distressing experience is magnified. What does it look like under a microscope? It takes the form of FOMO, or fear of missing out. FOMO is a main driving source behind social media use, linked to low levels of life and need satisfaction, distracted driving, and depression. Before the dawn of the social media age, one would have to have committed an act morally and/or ethically repugnant enough to be ostracized from their community in order to experience true exclusion and social pain. Now, it seems to be transmitted with the ease and commonality of opening an app and refreshing your timeline. Social media has enabled us to monitor the activities of our peers with endless continuity, and with this ability comes the inevitable intragroup comparison and subsequent feeling of exclusion, inferiority, and isolation. For an individual with high FOMO, a vicious cycle is perpetuated: they often hold the understanding that social media contact is interchangeable for real face time, a belief that increases their sense of isolation, which in turn increases experiences of FOMO, and so on. In her book Alone Together, MIT professor and social media expert Sherry Turkle, Ph.D. explores this breed of social isolation and exclusion:

“Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. [A 13-year-old girl who hates the phone and never listens to voicemail] is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.”

Social media also, obviously, keeps us from making real connections, in the real world. People check their phones on dates, scroll through Twitter while having conversations with their families, some are unable to even sit through an entire movie without checking their status at least once. Furthermore, as texting and driving has morosely proven, some value these faux connections over their own lives. As author and psychologist John Grohol puts it, “It’s not ‘interruption,’ it’s connection. But wait a minute… it’s not really ‘connection’ either. It’s the potential for simply a different connection. It may be better, it may be worse — we don’t know until we check.” This addiction to faux connection has become glaringly obvious in recent years — but not all connections fostered through the internet are an empty reflection of authentic relationships.

The #MeToo movement is a capital example of this. Social media giants have cultivated a new breed of revolution, facilitating the potency and productivity of physical revolt without requiring the insurgents to ever leave the house. (Interesting deviations here are the recent Climate March and Women’s March: physical movements, but organized entirely on social media platforms). The hashtag possesses the revolutionary ability to recognize and connect these survivors to a network of similarly disenfranchised women eager to support and embolden them through their journey to justice. Many survivors of sexual assault feel humiliation over the loss of control over their bodies, and as a result experience shame. This, along with the fear of being blamed, minimized, and denied by friends, family, colleagues, medical professionals and even law enforcement officials can prevent victims from coming forward. However, this pattern changes once more survivors are present. For one, it is easier for us as humans to be bolder when we have the support of a group behind us, a phenomenon made apparent through such heightened group capabilities as union instrumentality. Secondly, there is a corresponding, almost maternal feeling of obligation to protect and stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, emboldening even cripplingly introverted women to come forward not just for themselves, but for her sister victims. Not only did the electronic nature of this movement provide a community of reinforcement for these women, but it gave them the option to maintain a degree of anonymity, emboldening those wary of losing credibility, respect, even their jobs over reporting sexual harassment or assault.

Social media and its transformative power is seemingly here to stay. It has the capacity to help us maintain connections, expedite our nation’s technological and infrastructural proficiency, even revolutionize our democracy. The only question is to what degree we will allow it to change our brains, emotionality, and behavior as human beings.

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Julianna Tyner

Julianna Tyner

Student interested in psychology, politics, alternative medicine, and the human condition. I have a lot of thoughts, here are the filtered ones.