Social Media Networks vs Real Social Networks

A recent article on Harvard Business Review reports on research performed by Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis and published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The research produces evidence that Facebook use is negatively associated with overall well-being, particularly mental health. Meanwhile, real-world social networks that include face-to-face interaction are positively associated.

The authors posit that Facebook shows us idealized versions of our virtual “friends” because most people tend to show only the best parts of their lives with the public, hiding the less exciting or negative aspects of them. This portrayal causes unfavorable comparisons of our own lives to these idealized others as we are constantly bombarded with the feeling that we should be as happy and successful as how they appear on the surface. In addition, the amount of Facebook use correlates to the decrease in overall well-being, with more use related to a greater decline.

Real social networks remove the facade

I think the big difference between social media friends and real-world friends is social media’s virtual-person metaphor.

In the real world, when you see people somewhat frequently, you get a less-edited version. You can tell if they’re having a bad hair day, if they’re stressed out from a problem, or if they’re running late for your meeting. When you talk to this person face-to-face, they will also open up more about their problems, insecurities, and issues because they aren’t having to worry about broadcasting it to everyone on the internet. Essentially, you will be able to meet the real person behind the curtain.

In this way, we realize (over time) that they are a lot more like us than we may have first imagined.

Creating caricatures of oneself

Just because we are interacting with real conversation, however, doesn’t mean that we will always create the right outcome. I’ll give an example from my own life.

Years ago, I had a discussion with my wife involving the job that I had at the time. She was under the impression that I hated my job and had hated it for years. While there were the challenges and frustrations inevitable in even the best jobs, I certainly wasn’t miserable. More importantly, I couldn’t understand why my wife had gotten the notion that I hated the job since I had never said it outright.

Through the conversation, we realized that I was frequently talking to her only about the problems that I faced each day at work and rarely mentioned the positive outcomes. Unfortunately, basic human psychology says that negative events that spur anger, sadness, or fear are more likely to be remembered and retold to others than positive ones. This constant negativity colored her perception of the number of challenges I faced in my work. Ultimately, I was unintentionally giving her a negative caricature of my job.

In the same way that the conversation with my wife created a negative perspective over time, social media can also create a positive one over time. Most people tend to share the most positive aspects of their lives and while it is great to focus on the positive rather than the negative, it can also create a positive caricature of them over time.

Minimizing the social risk

These days, it’s likely impossible to avoid social media altogether and we probably don’t want to anyway. After all, there are many benefits that a network such as Facebook brings to family and friends, especially those that live far apart. They allow people to share photos, stories, and information with others they might not be able to connect with in the ‘real world,’ and that ability can’t be discounted. Most of the time, people publish relatively happy events and positive milestones and save their trolling for blog and video comments.

If a person can recognize the inherent risk that social media networks pose because of the idealization problem, then they might be able to reduce some of the potential negativity associated with it. By limiting the time spent engaging in these networks, a person can reduce this risk even more over time.

If you would like to see the original article, check it out here.