Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram… as millennials we spend an enormous amount of time checking different social media networks throughout the day. I travel around campus and constantly see people on their phones, whether it be scrolling through various social media outlets during lectures or taking up space on the sidewalk while I’m trying to get to class. It far more integrated into our lives than the lives of Baby Boomers or Generation X, and it’s going to be an even bigger feature of life for those in Generation Z. Social media is often praised as a way of increasing connections between people, and as a great form of communication. However there is a growing amount of evidence that social media networks are creating more and more negative effects in people’s mood. Some suggest that Facebook can actually create great feelings of loneliness and anxiety, and as a large part of our culture I believe that it is important to investigate this claim.
“FOMO” is a term that has been coined fairly recently and has been used more and more with the advent of social media. It stands for Fear of Missing Out, and it is often the feeling that can occur when scrolling through social media such as Facebook. As your friends post pictures of themselves enjoying an evening out or going on an exciting vacation, it can be difficult to not feel as if one is left out of the experiences of life. But why can it be so much more intense when looking through social media rather than the traditional FOMO that comes from just knowing that your friends are having fun without you? In an article in The New York Times, psychology professor Dan Ariely gives a great analogy to the issue. When you miss a flight, are you more upset if you miss the flight by 2 hours or 2 minutes? The vast majority of us will say 2 minutes, and that’s the point Ariely is trying to make about social media’s mechanism for causing FOMO. It is much easier to envision yourself in a different scenario when missing it by two minutes, as the slightest thing could have changed the outcome. Social media works similarly, it is much easier to see how your evening could have gone in many different angles. Your FOMO isn’t just based on speculations about what your friends are doing that night, the pictures and documentation of your friends’ night show you exactly what you were missing out on.
Negative body image also appears to be a large consequence of the rise of social media. As more and more people post photos of themselves to social media, the pressure to look good in your photographs is at an all-time high. After all, it’s no secret that those who are seen as more attractive tend to get more “likes” or “retweets” on social media outlets. But just how severe has the body image problem become? According to a report by the British Broadcasting Corporation, cosmetic surgery rates in the United Kingdom have increased by 20% since 2008. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), 2008 was the year that Facebook really started to take off in popularity and begin the climb to where it is today. However, this evidence is just a correlation and it is hard to prove that the rise in users of the social media platform lead to a rise in negative body image and in turn, a rise in cosmetic surgery rates. So I’ll look at another example. The popular content aggregating site reddit has a section or “subreddit” called Am I Ugly?, which is unfortunately exactly what it sounds like. People visit the site and post pictures of themselves asking the anonymous audience whether or not they are physically attractive or not in the comments section. A similar subreddit titled Rate Me is based on the same concept, but I’ve found the posters to be a bit less self-deprecating. However the two sections of the site share the same basic idea: posting pictures of yourself in order to gain approval or feedback on their own appearances. Reddit keeps metrics of their subscribers to the site and each specific subreddit’s rates of subscribers, and the data on “Am I Ugly?” and “Rate Me” show interesting details in societal views of image. Both sections of the site had big increases in subscribers over the past three years, “Am I Ugly?” having grown to thrice its size since 2013 and “Rate Me” having grown to 10 times its size in that stretch! Obviously, the need to feel attractive has grown with the cultivation of social media over the years.
So is social media all fun and games with your friends throughout life? Not really. There are definitely some negatives to using social media, especially at the rates we see in the millennial generation. Increases in sadness due to FOMO and an increase on the focus of body image have been some negative side effects of using social media, and these types of emotional impacts have the potential to do more damage than we can explore at the current time. I’m not writing this to knock social media though, of course it can have its benefits and has done a tremendous job in increasing the lines of communication among society. Maybe just take a look up once in a while and enjoy what’s going on with you rather than what’s going on with your friends.