Christmas, it is often said, is a time for giving. Perhaps the greatest gift we can offer those we love is the gift of our attention. Our best gift to ourselves may be simply time for mental reflection and emotional renewal.
Both may require a deliberate decision to spend less time in the world of social media. A University of Copenhagen study released this week suggests that excessive use of social media can damage our emotional wellbeing. Among other things, the study says that over-engagement with Facebook and other platforms can give rise to feelings of envy.
On this point, the study is reinforcing what we already know. Several research projects over a few years, drawn from various parts of the world, have found that extensive use of social media use makes people feel more downcast and depressed than they otherwise would.
Many of these research projects have focused mostly on Facebook, mainly because it is the biggest player in the market. For the most part, though, their findings can reasonably be applied to other platforms.
Social media are not the ideal places to go if you want to reinforce a positive self-esteem. One of the reasons for this is, of course, that nobody shows their worst possible life on social media. This is again borne out by the Danish study. People don’t jump on Instagram to upload a photo or video of themselves taken at seven o’clock in the morning, as they claw their way out of bed in a daze, following a torrid night-before. Most Twitter users won’t tweet about their session clearing the drains or washing the car (unless it’s a Mazerati).
Because social media are largely public broadcast (or narrowcast) platforms, users want to be seen doing interesting, amusing and in some cases even highly dangerous things. Even if viewers are aware of this fact – and most are – they can be left with feelings of inadequacy and the sense that their own lives don’t quite match up to the social norm.
What the Copenhagen study doesn’t appear to mention is the disturbing fact that prolonged use of social media cuts down on our “eyeball time”.
So many of our relationships now are mediated using screens, so we don’t spend as much time as we once did eyeballing one other.
This is why, according to a leading British psychologist, children as young as five years in the UK are exhibiting autism-like symptoms. They haven’t learned how to read basic facial signals in other people, because they’re so often engaged with digital displays.
There is also the challenge posed by social media to our attention spans. An American study some time back suggested that the average attention span for an internet user is around eight seconds. Relating this more specifically to social media, a group of Canadian researchers found that university students who use Facebook, even on a casual basis, tend to get lower average grades than those who don’t.
One reason for this is that the internet is an ecosystem for distraction. Sir Tim Berners Lee’s great contribution to the internet was to create a means by which computer users could connect with remote documents using hypertext protocol links. The resulting network of information, which became known as the World Wide Web, is now the foundation upon which we’ve built the ubiquitous Cloud. Data is still accessed online through the use of Lee’s clickable links.
The beauty of this system is the speed with which we can skip from one piece of information to another, without leaving the screen before us. The downside is that in doing so we may never rest in one place long enough to take in what we’re reading, viewing or listening to; our brains don’t have time to assimilate what we’re learning or experiencing, building it into long-term memory. As a result, we have no opportunity to turn our new-found knowledge into innovation, because new ideas are always built out of connections between old, or stored, ideas.
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