It may be hard to imagine a world without Facebook now, but the social network was only launched in 2004.
It took just over a year to surpass its biggest rival, MySpace, which dominated the scene, and by the end of its first 18 months online Facebook had attracted 100 million users.
Many others would follow, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram, yet Facebook remains the leader of the social network pack with more than 1.7 billion users at last count – nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Social networks, and particularly Facebook, can be a good way to stay in touch with friends and family, but there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest that they could be hazardous to your health.
The need to keep up with your connections can lead to anxiety and broken sleep through compulsive social network checking. There’s a competitive angle, as people post an edited version of their lives that highlights the extremes – and social networking as a whole can encourage bullying online too.
What are the health risks of social networks?
The social network phenomenon is obviously part of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles. But beyond the fact that you may be spending hours sitting or lying around squinting at a screen in your hand, the main health risks of social networks seem to relate to our mental health.
“The key risks psychologically are social anxiety and loneliness, which seem to increase with usage – the more people use these virtual systems, the more isolated they can become in real life,” Professor of Psychology at Swansea University, Phil Reed, explained to us.
“In addition, depression can be linked to heavy use – in part due to loneliness, but also in part due to the social comparisons that people make with the unreal representations of the lives of others.”
FOMO (fear of missing out) is the biggest reason we compulsively check the service, and it’s a common enough term that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.
If you find yourself checking your phone when you’re already engaged in something that should be enjoyable, or picking Facebook friends over friends who are physically in the room with you, then you could be suffering from it.
Research suggests that it can cause a wide variety of negative psychological consequences including pressure, paranoia, dissatisfaction, and jealousy.
Reviewing an edited stream of other people’s lives can also influence our perception of our happiness relative to others. One study found that heavier Facebook users were more likely to agree that other people were happier and had better lives than them.
You may also be getting a false impression of the world around you because of Facebook and something called the echo chamber effect.
The idea is that you tend to befriend people with similar views to your own and posts are filtered through the collective bias.
You may then get a nasty shock when events like elections don’t turn out as expected, as you’ve been surrounded by people agreeing with your viewpoint – if you don’t know anyone who voted for the party or candidate you despise, then it can’t happen, right? You may even decide that you don’t need to vote.
It’s not just Facebook that’s the cause of a lot of issues in society though – social networking as a whole has created a new suite of problems that previous generations never had to consider.
If you’re indiscreet, then social networking posts can lead to lost opportunities. As many as 70% of recruiters and HR professionals said they had rejected candidates based on information they found online, according to research commissioned by Microsoft.
The rise of cyberbullying on social networks is also contributing to an increased likelihood of depression among teens. A recent global survey of 4,700 teenagers found that a fifth had experienced cyberbullying and nearly half of those asked described it as a bigger problem than drug abuse.
What are the benefits?
There is a potentially positive side to Facebook and other social networks. It’s a good way to stay in touch, arrange events and share photos with friends and family.
“It can also be useful for professional purposes in terms of immediacy of contact and in terms of being able to access a wide range of skills in others – however, this is only a very small percentage of the usage of social media,” says Prof. Reed.
Social connections can also help combat loneliness and anxiety. People who struggle with face-to-face interactions or have few opportunities to meet like-minded friends in their local community can find companionship and conversation on social networks.
“Some people claim that it helps social contact, but, apart from some particular groups of individuals who find social contact face to face very difficult, there is little evidence of the benefits,” suggests Prof. Reed.
Is the rise of the smartphone to blame?
We’ve looked at the issue of smartphone addiction before, but the smartphone is really just a delivery device for the internet and social networks. The problem is that it makes connecting much easier than it would be otherwise.
We have our smartphones with us all the time, we’re conditioned to answer when they call, and for many people they’re the first thing we reach for in the morning and the last thing we do at night.
More than one billion daily active users come through mobile devices, according to Facebook, and 56.5% of all Facebook users only access the social network from their phones.
“The smartphone is set up to serve such platforms, allowing quick access in short bursts,” says Prof. Reed, “much different to the types of internet connection of ten or even five years ago.”
Social networks took off before smartphones and they would exist without them, but it’s fair to say that these mobile devices are exacerbating the problem by providing an immediacy that can’t be found from a desktop computer.
Should we all be quitting?
The first thing to do is consider whether you actually have a problem. You may be unaware of the impact that Facebook is having on your life and your mental wellbeing. If you use Facebook a lot, then you might want to check out the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale.
“Once we realize the scale of the problem, we can take measures to reduce our time on social networks,” says Mrigaen Kapadia, developer of the BreakFree app for Android and iOS. “We don’t need to quit, because social networks do have their advantages, but we should be conscious about our usage and not let it come in the way of being social.”
You can use these smartphone usage apps to see how often you are checking your phone and firing up Facebook.
Measure how much time you’re actually spending on Facebook and if it’s too much, then try quitting it for a week and see how you feel.
Post to tell people that you’re taking a break from it and won’t be interacting for a while. Try replacing your Facebook time with something else that’s positive and can be done in similar small chunks of time, like learning a language with an app like Duolingo.
At the end of the week you can assess whether you’ve missed Facebook. How much has its absence impacted on your life? Do you want to go back to using it as frequently?
Is it going to get worse?
The rise of social networks shows no signs of abating and the pressure to be a part of things like Facebook is tangible.
For kids growing up today, opting out of social networks could be really damaging to their social lives. If everyone else is using it to chat and organise events, they may be left out. Plenty of people use Facebook without any apparent ill effects, but it’s easy to slide into overuse.
The compulsion to use it grows as you get more active on it, so it’s important to be mindful of how often you’re checking in.
“There is little realization about the ill effects of social networking, and the big companies like Facebook and Google, are not going to take a stand against this, for obvious reasons,” suggests Kapadia.
“The problem with social addiction is that there is no direct physical harm done, unlike smoking or drug addiction. This makes it very difficult to get the point across.”
Still a Facebook future?
It’s still early days for social networks like Facebook and there’s a lot we haven’t figured out.
“Currently, it is very public. There are barely any norms, regulations or laws around it. This will change in the future,” suggests Kapadia. “I think it will be a lot more private than it is now.”
It would be foolish to think that this is it for social networking, that Facebook’s march to taking over the globe is going to continue in this vein.
“So if you go back 10 or 15 years, most of what we shared on the internet was text, right? And, you know, over the last 5 or 10 years, now a lot of it is photos,” explained Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, at a townhall meeting in Delhi.
“Over the next period of time, we’re really – I think – entering this golden age of internet video where the primary way we’re going to both share our experience and consume other people’s kind of experience and ideas online is going to be through video.
“But, you know, I don’t think videos are the end of the line, right? Because, as rich as a video is in terms of telling a story it’s still just, you know, small screen. It’s still 2D. And I think that people want an even richer medium.
“You want to be able to feel like you’re there. And that’s what virtual reality and augmented reality can do. They can make it so that you actually feel like you’re right there in the scene.”
Of course, Facebook owns Oculus, one of the leading virtual reality headset manufacturers. We may well be headed for a future where we can plug into the virtual world together to spend time with friends and family or view events like concerts remotely.
This could enable us to see places we’d never otherwise see and spend time with people who are physically distant, but it will also come with its own set of potential problems.
Whatever the future of social networking holds, Facebook aims to be a big part of it. The trick for us is not to overindulge.
“Like any behavior, if you enjoy it, then do it, but be aware of the risks,” suggests Prof. Reed. “Be aware of the reasons that you are using Facebook and remember that there are other ways to reach the same social ends, don’t let those fall by the wayside.”
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