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 Pennsylvania study in 2018 revealed not just a correlation but a causative impact between social media use and lower levels of mental health. This applied especially in areas such as anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and suicidal tendencies.
The report was published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.
The researchers found that people who limited their social media use - including Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat - to a total of just 30 minutes per day, reported feeling significantly better after three weeks, that people who did not.
They felt noticeably less anxious and suffered less from FOMO - the now infamous ‘fear of missing out’.
A University of Copenhagen study, released in 2016, suggested that an over-engagement with Facebook and other social media platforms can give rise to feelings of envy.
Social media platforms are not the ideal places to visit if you want to reinforce positive self-esteem. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that nobody shows their worst possible life on social media.
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 Maserati).
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.
Prolonged use of social media also cuts down on our “eyeball time”.
So many of our relationships now are mediated using screens. As a result, most of us spend less time developing the biometric-reading skills we unconsciously use in normal conversation.
Our ability to read and evaluate subtle facial muscle movements is a central part of interpersonal communication.
According to some British psychologists, the reduced time using these skills helps explain why more very young children, including those as young as five, 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.
American studies have 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 essentially an ecosystem for distraction.
Sir Tim Berners Lee’s great contribution to the internet was the creation of a way to connect remote documents using inbuilt links. The World Wide Web was the result.
It is the foundation on 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 hearing. Our brains won’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. New ideas are always built out of connections between old, or stored, ideas.
As a further consequence of this, we are building transactional relationships with machines.
A number of studies reveal that we tend not to remember what we learn on the internet as much as where we found it. We rely on Pocket, Evernote or a similar Cloud-based programme to actually store the content we read.
Again, the consequence is that there is little potential for connecting new date with old information inside the human brain. So there’s little room for creative or innovative thinking.
In the process of exposing us to so many new people, social media also reveals how many interesting individuals we could know but don’t.
Again, this sets us up to feel that we’re somehow falling short, especially if our online “friends” seem always to have more followers than we do.
We can expend so much energy trying to attract new online contacts – most of whom will represent only surface-level connections – that we have little left to invest in new or existing offline friends.
Finally, let’s consider the growing body of evidence for increased levels of social disinhibition among many new media users.
Psychologists have noted how often people say things online that they’d never dream of saying offline. Bullying and trolling represent the most extreme manifestations of this problem, but its impact can be felt on a much wider level.
In one British study, two per cent of 2,000 British people admitted to having insulted someone they didn’t know online within a given year.
That doesn’t sound like many people, but if you extrapolate it over the entire UK population, it represents one million people insulting one million other people via the internet. This is hardly helpful for social cohesion in an age of alienation.
Social media have presented us with many wonderful opportunities. Not the least of these is the capacity to collaborate in innovative ways across vast distances, potentially solving previously intractable problems.
Mass innovation is now bearing fruit in the worlds of medicine, education, technology, science, business and more. There is no place for Luddism here.
Yet it is worth remembering that technology is amoral. Our collective future will not be the product of the technologies we use, but of how we as human agents choose to use and develop them.
The studies mentioned here - and many others across the world - ought to give us pause to reflect.
As we approach the festive season, we would do well to remember one thing. Social media certainly affords us unprecedented opportunities for contact with friends from whom we are unavoidably separated by distance. Yet the process of engaging with these media can become so habit-forming that we unwittingly neglect friends, loved ones and neighbours who are physically within our reach.
Limiting our use of social media may be the best gift we can offer our children, parents, friends and neighbours this Christmas. It’s certainly a great gift to our own mental health.