My friend Eric Barker recently pointed my attention to an intriguing paper published earlier this fall in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. It presented a careful meta-analysis of 124 studies looking at the connections between digital media and well-being.
There’s been a lot of academic ink spilled on this subject recently. As I wrote in Digital Minimalism, correlational behavioral studies are exceedingly tricky — you can’t expect slam dunk consistency, but must instead look for general trends in the literature pointing toward some underlying signal in the noise.
Which is all to say, you shouldn’t don’t take any one study too seriously. Even with these caveats, however, I did find this one interesting, as it featured some heavyweight authors, and was clearly written to offer some authority on where the noisy literature seems to be trending at the moment.
The analysis was complicated and contained multiple noteworthy findings, but there was one result in particular I wanted to highlight:
“[D]ifferent [social media service (SNS)] activities have quite different relationships to well-being…Interactions and online entertainment had significant, positive links to well-being. Self-presentation also correlated positively with well-being, but the effect was very small. The largest effect we found in our entire meta-analysis was the negative correlation between well-being and SNS content consumption.”
Here’s what struck me about these observations. Early social media focused on the behaviors that make people feel better: you would post things about yourself and check in/interact with your friends.
Modern social media, which largely displaced the individual feed model with the algorithmically-generated timeline, instead emphasizes passive content consumption, as the amount of times you can check on your friends in a given week is relatively small, while the time you can dedicate to content consumption is boundless.
This seems like a house cards. How much worse can these services make us feel about ourselves before we realize there are other ways to get the things we used to love about the social internet?