For the past few years, the vast majority of news from the social media realm has been in a positive vein. Popular formats and platforms. Demographic shifts between channels. Social media influencers. And, overarching the more granular changes, the continual rise of social media use. Until now.
2018 has marked the beginning of something we’ve not seen before: a decline in the overall use of social media (Baer 2018). A 3% drop may not seem particularly significant, but it is the fact that it is a drop that should cause concern. For the past nine years, social media use in the U.S. has increased an average of nearly 8%.
At the very least, this data is indicative that the love affair with social media may be over. “In terms of what we consider to be the primary “social networks” (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram, et al.), we may have reached ‘peak social media.’ It’s likely that we’ll see a subsequent decline in usage in 2019.” (Baer 2018)
Anecdotally, I don’t find this surprising. I, myself, have an ambivalent relationship with the medium, despite my ongoing involvement. I have often wondered if I could possibly walk away from it. A fair number of attendees in my workshops have indicated similar feelings. Perhaps, many, like me, feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume and nonstop feeds of emotions and news.
And it’s not just “olds” like myself. Even Millenials are falling out of love with social media. A poll, taken in December 2017, found that 34% of this age group have deleted entire social media accounts (Vega, 2018). More than 50% reported that they were “seeking relief from social media.”
Even when a social media platform is heavily used, that doesn’t mean that the users necessarily like that platform. Facebook, with more than two billion active users, still has a large contingent that wouldn’t mind if it just disappeared. A 2017 Harris poll found that 32% of respondents hoped that Facebook would just “go away”—despite the fact that they use it almost daily (Molla 2018).
The decline of social media cannot be laid at the doorstep of any one event or factor, much like the fall of the Roman Empire. Even as the medium matured, the problems multiplied.
Ever woken up and immediately grabbed your phone? Data from social media management platform MyLife found in 2013 that 27% of consumers admit they check social networks as soon as they wake up, and 51% persist in use periodically throughout the day (Lowery 2018).
If you’ve found it difficult to stop scrolling through your Instagram feed, you’re not alone. It’s no secret that using and consuming social media can be addictive. Social media can trigger a release of dopamine (Soat 2015). Dopamine is sometimes called the “rewards molecule.” This means that social media can release the same neurochemical that receiving a hug or exercising does. It also means that it contributes heavily to the addictive qualities of the medium.
Taylor Keyt, a high school senior from Connecticut, has almost completely stopped using social media. Her reasons are varied, but one in particular points to it’s addictive qualities: “I believe that social media has somehow also changed how we think. The inner wiring of our brains must be fundamentally altered. Instead of just thinking when we are bored, we immediately go for our phones rather than finding something else to do. I am not immune to this, I hate that when I am bored, my hand reflexively shoots to my pocket for that ever-enticing rectangle. ” (Keyt 2018)
As with any other addictive behavior, consequences can be similarly negative. In 2011, Daria Kuss and Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University reviewed 43 different studies relating to social networking and addiction. Excessive use was associated with issues such as declining academic performance, relationship problems and less participation in communities that were not online (Kuss and Griffiths 2011).
Singer Katy Perry is one of the largest social media stars in the world, with millions of followers on both Twitter and Instagram. As a very public celebrity, it is somewhat ironic that she is one of the high-profile public figures calling out social for how it has negatively affected so many people’s lives. She regularly states that she finds the pressure of living publicly on social media to be a strain. ““I can’t wait till Instagram culture is over so we can all be ourselves again.” (Petkar 2018)
But social media doesn’t take its toll only on celebrities. Social media can be especially tough on teens. In an interview with girls ages 15 to 17, the TV show Good Morning America found that social media can deeply affect their behaviors and their perspectives (Yeo and Thorbecke 2017). A majority of those interviewed felt that stress was a large part of their lives, and many statements intimated that social media magnified or added to that stress. Some felt that social media caused them to question their own physical attributes, increased the competition between them and was a cause of constant pressure. Dr. Logan Levkoff, an expert in parent-child communications cited in the interview, says “The part that parents miss is they think that social media is stressful just when you use it, but it’s even stressful when you’re not on. Because you’re wondering, what are people thinking of my posts? Are they liking my photos? Am I missing out on something?” (Yeo and Thorbecke 2017)
The effects of social media use on mental health have been studied for a while now. While some results have been inconclusive, there is enough evidence to clearly suggest that there are at least some negative consequences. A study as early as 2013 found that increased use of Facebook decreases well-being and life satisfaction (Kross et al. 2013). Another study, in 2017, published in The American Journal of Preventative Medicine, found that social media, rather than increasing feelings of connectedness, may actually increase feelings of isolation (Primack et al. 2017).
Forbes contributing writer Alison G. Walton points out that the comparison factor contributes to these issues (Walton 2017). “We fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others as we scroll through our feeds and make judgements about how we measure up.” Walton cites a study by Mai-Ly N. Steers et al., which linked Facebook usage to depressive symptoms (Steers, Wickham and Acitelli 2014). A large part of this are the feelings of jealousy incited by seeing how much “better” someone may be doing than oneself. This can cause a self-defeating cycle: social media is inherently addictive, so we constantly scroll through our feeds…only to feel jealous of what someone else has posted. Repeat.
The irony of this negative cycle is that we don’t necessarily believe it will happen to us. We believe that scrolling through Facebook will make us feel better but, in fact, the opposite has been proven to be true (Sagioglou and Greitemeyer 2014). The addictive nature of social media causes us to replay this scenario over and over, potentially adding more stress, pressure and anxiety to our lives.
There is no shortage of stories about online harassment and cyberbullying via social media. In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics that as many as 1 in 3 students had reported being cyberbullied (U.S. Department of Education, 2013). It’s not just students; in 2017, Pew Internet found that 4 in 10 Americans had personally experienced some form of online harassment (Duggan 2017). Maeve Dugan, writing for Pew Internet, says: “To borrow an expression from the technology industry, harassment is now a ‘feature’ of life online for many Americans. In its milder forms, it creates a layer of negativity that people must sift through as they navigate their daily routines online. At its most severe, it can compromise users’ privacy, force them to choose when and where to participate online, or even pose a threat to their physical safety (Duggan 2017).
Social media has been accused of not doing enough to control or prevent various forms of online harassment. While social platforms are struggling with this issue, the oftentimes toxic climate of social interactions online can make participation in social media less desirable. A number of high-profile celebrities have deleted or deactivated their social media accounts for this reason; Meghan Markle, Ed Sheeran and Emma Stone being only a few (Stark 2018).
The phrase “content shock” was first coined by marketing and social media expert Mark Schaefer in 2014 (Schaefer 2014). Simply put, it is the point at which there is simply so much content being created that people cannot keep up. The rate at which new content is being generated is constantly rising, yet our ability to consume it is finite. This means that, more and more, social media has become a “pay to play” endeavor. In order to have content seen, increasing numbers of organizations and businesses have had to pay for social media reach: something that, in the past, was available for free. It is nearly impossible to compete with the never-ending stream of posts nowadays without investing at least some money, regardless of platform. Organic (non-paid) reach hasn’t completely disappeared, but it has dropped so much as to make achieving it a much more complicated effort.
For individuals, content shock can contribute not only to the overall feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information, but to what is often referred to as “FOMO” (Fear of Missing Out). Users worry that they will miss something important happening on one or more of their social media feeds. This, in turn, can influence even further addiction. School reporter Sheveen, working for the BBC, was asked to forego use of social media for a week. He wrote: “The thought of all the messages coming through at the weekend, and plans I that I wanted to know about, made me worry about what I was missing out on. It all weighed down on me. It was too much. I broke. ” (BBC News 2017)
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