There are clear and obvious benefits afforded us by mobile technology and social media. For example, some studies suggest that social media use can have a positive impact on well-being through increased social support and encouragement of real world relationships. But while we acknowledge the benefits, how do we also identify and combat the potential negative effects of our digital lives? Both individuals and researchers increasingly acknowledge these negative effects, such as greater disconnection, isolation, stress, depression, inauthenticity, and loneliness. Books like The Attention Merchants describe the purposefully addictive designs woven into our digital and mobile tools, and how these technologies shape and change the nature of our day-to-day communication and how we connect with others.
Many of these negative side effects are unintended. A recent significant study, which tracked real-life Facebook use and measured well-being over multiple time points, showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated. Specifically, both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction. While these findings seem to show that Facebook use reduces well-being over time, the researchers cannot definitively identify why this occurs.
Recent research on the “social brain”—how we’ve evolved to connect with others—can provide an important framework for understanding how social media could undermine our ability to benefit from social connection.
In 2006, researchers at the University of Wisconsin conducted a study in which women’s brains were monitored while they were confronted with the threat of an unpleasant electrical shock. These participants were randomly assigned to one of three social conditions—they were either alone, holding a stranger’s hand, or holding their romantic partner’s hand. Researchers were interested in what happened in the threat-response circuits of the brain under these different social conditions. Women who had reported the highest levels of relationship quality with their partner showed the fewest signs that their brains were preparing to respond to the threat of the electrical shock. In contrast, women with lower-quality relationships showed greater activity in areas of the brain that track threat and also showed higher levels of stress hormones. When holding hands with a stranger, threat-related brain regions were again activated, but now with the addition of neural circuits underlying vigilance and self-regulation. The final group, who was alone facing the threat of shock, showed the highest level of brain activation compared to other groups.
This study illustrates an important point about our brains, which is that we benefit from the presence of others in terms of the biological resources we have to spend to cope with challenges. In essence, social connection—especially high quality connection—makes our brains work more efficiently. Everything becomes easier.
This makes sense if we consider the fact that to survive and thrive, biological systems must take in more energy than they expand. This is called “economy of action.” Because humans evolved in social groups, we learned early on that social networks save a lot of energy. We spend less energy and reap more benefits when we do things together rather than alone. This was simple math to prehistoric humans. We understood that social resources were as powerful, if not more so, than material resources. When these social resources are taken away, such as through the loss of a romantic partner, the need to rely upon internal resources puts strain on the individual.
This 2006 hand-holding study further illustrated that, although a stranger may not be as effective a social resource as a spouse, it’s better than being alone. Even subtle and minimal social connection has a buffering effect, which provides the advantage of greater economy of action. Additional findings emerging from this study suggest that when we are alone our brains are not actually “at rest.” Brains actually look most at rest when we have social connection available to us. This is a puzzle only if we ignore the idea that the brain’s true baseline—what it has evolved to do—is to be connected with others. When we’re not connected to others, our brain has a lot more work to do.
What happens to us when we not only have deficits in social connection, but a complete absence of this connection? Solitary confinement is a case in point. When producer and director Dan Edge was filming his Frontline documentary Last Days of Solitary, he spent months with the inmates and guards in a solitary confinement ward in the Maine State prison system. Afterwards, in an interview on the Leonard Lopate show on National Public Radio for WNYC, Edge spoke about the frightening impact solitary confinement had on the prisoners. Locked in a room alone hour after hour, day after day, with little to distract them or engage their minds, prisoners often became severely disturbed. They banged their heads against the walls, tried to commit suicide, flooded their cells with toilet water, cut themselves and spread their blood on the windows of their cells so that guards would have to forcibly extract them in order to clean the window.
Edge observed one young man over the course of four months in solitary, incarcerated for the first time for a relatively minor crime. The young man went from being coherent and optimistic that he could serve his time, to someone who repeatedly cut himself and attacked guards. This was after “only” four months. Other prisoners in the solitary system had endured years of isolation.
Solitary confinement tells the story of how social isolation can break something fundamental about our humanity.
Another reason that social media interactions might leave us yearning for deeper connections has to do with human speech. In 2012, Leslie Seltzer and colleagues published a study examining the unique and adaptive power of human speech to provide comfort, even altering human biology in positive ways. We know from previous research that speech between trusted individuals can lead to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to the formation and maintenance of positive relationships. To tease apart what it is about human speech that has these powerful salutary effects, Seltzer and colleagues examined these hormones in girls who instant messaged their mothers after undergoing a stressor. Unlike children interacting with their mothers in person or over the phone, girls who IM’d showed little to no release of oxytocin, and showed cortisol levels comparable to the control subjects who had no interaction with their mothers after the stressor. Connection through digital devices just wasn’t the same as the comforting voice or presence of a mom.
Research on the social brain and studies like that by Seltzer and colleagues are thought-provoking because they provide guidelines for understanding how and under what conditions social media do or do not provide the social connection that allows us to not only survive but to thrive. Here are three guiding principles I focus on when thinking about digitally-mediated ways of connecting:
Dr. Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, PhD is an emotion scientist and Professor in the Psychology Department at Hunter College of the City University of New York, where she is also co-director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Health Technology and Wellness and of the Stress, Anxiety, and Resilience Research Center. She is the creator of the stress-reduction app Personal Zen. You can read more about her work at dennis-tiwary.com.
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