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Social Media’s Shift Toward Misery

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?

15 thoughts on “Social Media’s Shift Toward Misery”

  1. “The largest effect we found in our entire meta-analysis was the negative correlation between well-being and SNS content consumption.”

    negative correlation? it’s not a meaningful finding without drilling to the root.

    • Disclaimer I have not read the paper *but*

      even this finding is an important one. It is an important intermediary step toward finding the root cause. Knowing that something correlates at all is important because then you can ask new research questions, design studies, experiments, etc that will lead you to understand causal effects.

      Although I think if you have a cross disciplinary look into psychology piecing together why the negative correlations occurs is not difficult — of course this is just a guess and need rigorous scientific evaluation.

  2. I couldn’t agree more as someone who is a writer, speaker, and podcaster. Yes,, I have abandoned all social media for the last and final time. It’s addictive, anxiety producing, obsessive and in most instances produces a false sense of what a person’s life or career or accomplishments actually are. It is preying on our fears of FOMO. My true friends keep in touch with me outside of social media. My work does not suffer at all, especially since I have better and more concentrated focus on it. And when I quit social media I think 3 people noticed. 3! Out of thousands of real and online “friends”. My mission nor my message have been diluted. It’s actually more powerful. Never going back. I’m not at all interested in what anyone is having for lunch.

      • Same with me. If I were to answer the question of “What is the best choice I ever made?”, it would be quitting social media. I am so grateful for watching Cal Newport’s TED talk in middle school. It was a wake up call for me to quit social media.
        A lot of people think that if they quit, the whole world would be upset but that didn’t even happen to me. None of my friends were bothered and even if they were bothered, they never asked me why I left social media.

  3. A while ago I discovered some Computing Podcasts on iTunes. ‘Follow us on Twitter’ They say.

    I won’t name them personally, but taking a look at said Twitter pages, these softly spoken podcast geeks where posting endless bile, virtue-signalling, viscous personal attacks on anyone who disagrees with them from the safety of their computer screen or smartphone. Interestingly – these ramblings where usually interspersed with public posts about suffering from depression/anxiety.

    The difference between their podcast persona which required creativity and humanity, and the Twitter persona, where moral grandstanding is the currency was like a total personality transplant.

    • Wow! Unfortunately, I’m not surprised. Congruency is lacking for many.
      It’s one of the first things I look for when deciding who to give my time and attention.
      We are human so I believe we all have moments where we’re not as congruent as others. However, in general, do your actions support your words?

  4. Thanks to your study hacks blog and books, I have made 3.9 GPA this semester! By incorporating more Deep Work practices and reducing my digital presence, I hope to get a 4.0.

    I’m also a fan of your career craftsmen manifesto. I have a question though. Currently, I am a sophomore biochem student at a public liberal arts college in the south. I want to get to the bleeding edge of a field that ties together chemistry, biology, and physics while also achieving my ideal lifestyle. What would you recommend to get into a top grad school to get to the bleeding edge?

  5. Would love to hear Cal’s response to JOE. I’m off social media and on board with limiting its use. But we are all humans, and are inherently weak to confirmation bias.

  6. Very interesting study.

    One of the burning questions I’ve had for sometime is, ‘does social media have an expiration date?’.

    If you believe the hype, droves of users are already abandoning FaceBook (I suspect, in favour of even more superfluous media platforms like Instagram… still though).

    As another commenter has mentioned, twitter seems to have morphed into a soapbox platform. Perhaps, as people start to catch on that these services have less and less to offer them, besides toxic echo chambers, they will just start to lose interest.

    I wonder if it’s going to be less to do with overall mental health, and more about user experience.

    The self destruction of social media platforms will be the result of them being increasingly shaped to bring out the worst in humanity, at the behest of being increasingly optimised to mine user data, and curate their news feed based increasingly extreme optimisation.

    • I just wanted to throw in that many conservatives left twitter for gab, and many liberals left the site for mastodon, and yet still twitter contains huge swathes of soap-boxing. But I wonder if we are too quick to pin all blame for this on echo chambers and self-segregated safe spaces, rather than the lack of their voices being heard IRL generally, by their elected officials, heads of industry or even religious leaders.

      As for the house of cards comment in the article itself, I wonder if this was not always the grand design. Regardless of how much folks care to listen about the tinfoil governmental cloak and dagger bits, these companies must have had studies done over the year showing the harmful side-effects of social networking usage. Along with recent studies elsewhere indicating the majority of persons prescribed psychotropics have no rational cause for being on such meds, I suspect we are meant to be made fragile.


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