Why Social Media Makes People Unhappy – And Simple Ways To Fix It


Disrupted sleep, lower life satisfaction and poor self-esteem are just some of the negative mental health consequences that research has linked to social media. Somehow, the same platforms that can help people feel more connected and better informed also contribute to loneliness and misinformation. What succeeds and fails, according to computer scientists, depends on how these platforms are designed. Amanda Baughan, a graduate student specializing in human-computer interaction, a subfield of computer science, at the University of Washington, believes interdisciplinary research could inform better social platforms and applications. At the Association for Computing Machinery Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) 2022 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in May, she presented findings from a recent project that explored how social media triggers what psychologists call it “dissociation,” or a reduced state of self. -reflection and narrowed attention. Baughan spoke with Mind Matters Editor-in-Chief Daisy Yuhas to discuss how and why apps need to change to empower the people who use them.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

You showed how changing social media signals and presentations can improve well-being, even when people strongly disagree on issues. Can you give an example?

Social media design can have a lot of power over how people interact with each other and how they feel about their experiences online. For example, we’ve found that social media design can actually help people feel more supportive and kind in times of online conflict, so long as there’s a little nudge to behave this way. In one study, we designed an intervention that encouraged people who start talking about something contentious in a comment thread to switch to direct messaging. People really liked it. This helped resolve their conflict and replicated a solution we use in person: people with a public argument move to a private space to work things out.

You also tackled a different problem with social media use called the “30-Minute Ick Factor,” a term coined by Alexis Hiniker, your graduate counselor and computer scientist at the University of Washington. What is that?

We get lost very quickly on social networks. When people encounter a platform where they can scroll endlessly for more information, it can trigger a neurocognitive reward system similar to anticipating a winning lottery ticket or getting food. It is a powerful way that these apps are designed to allow us to check and scroll.

The “30-Minute Ick Factor” is when people want to briefly check their social media but then find that 30 minutes have passed, and when they realize how long they’ve been, they have this feeling of disgust and disappointment in themselves. Research has shown that people are dissatisfied with this habitual use of social media. Many people call it meaningless, unproductive or addictive.

You have argued that this experience is less about dependency than about “dissociation”. What is it exactly ?

Dissociation is a psychological process that comes in many forms. In the most common daily dissociation, your mind is so absorbed that you are disconnected from your actions. You might be doing the dishes, start daydreaming, and not paying attention to how you do the dishes. Or you could be looking for immersive experiences — watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a game — that pass the time and make you forget where you are.

During these activities, your sense of reflective self-awareness and the passage of time are reduced. People only realize that they have dissociated in hindsight. Attention is restored with the feeling of “What just happened?” or “My leg fell asleep while we were watching this movie!”

Dissociation can be a positive thing, especially if it’s an absorbing experience, a meaningful activity, or a needed break. But it can also be harmful in some cases, like in gaming, or conflict with people’s time management goals, like with social media scrolling.

How to measure the dissociation of people on social networks?

We worked with 43 participants who used a custom mobile app we created called Chirp to access their Twitter accounts. The app allows people to interact with Twitter content while allowing us to ask them questions and test interventions. So when people were using Chirp, after a certain number of minutes we would send them a questionnaire based on a psychological scale for measuring dissociation. We asked them how much they agreed with the statement “I currently use Chirp without really paying attention to what I’m doing” on a scale of 1 to 5. We also conducted interviews with 11 people to find out more. The results showed that dissociation occurred in 42% of our participants, and they consistently reported losing track of time or feeling “all consumed”.

You also designed four interventions that changed people’s Twitter experience on Chirp to reduce dissociation. What worked?

Custom lists and reading history tags are the most successful. In custom lists, we forced users to categorize the content they follow, such as “sports”, “news”, or “friends”. Then, instead of interacting with the main Twitter feed, they only interact with the content of those lists. This approach was coupled with a story-reading intervention in which people received a message when they were caught up with the latest tweets. Rather than keep scrolling, they were alerted to what they had already seen, so they focused only on the most recent content. These interventions reduced dissociation, and when we did interviews, people said they felt safer checking their social media accounts when these changes were present.

In another design, people received timed messages letting them know how long they had been on Chirp and suggesting they leave. They also had the option of viewing a usage page that showed them stats such as how much time they had spent on Chirp over the past seven days. Both of these solutions were effective if people chose to use them. Many people ignored them, however. Also, people thought timed posts were boring. These results are interesting because many popular time management tools available to users resemble these expiration and usage notifications.

So what could social media companies do differently? And is there an incentive for them to change?

Right now there is a lot of work against people using social media. It’s impossible to catch up on a social media feed, especially when you consider algorithmically inserted content, like Twitter’s trending tweets or TikTok’s “For You” page. But I think there’s hope that relatively simple tweaks to social media design, such as custom lists, can make a difference.

It’s important to note that the custom lists greatly reduced the dissociation of people, but they did not significantly affect the time spent using the application. To me, this goes to show that reducing people’s dissociation may not be as counter to the revenue goals of social media companies as we might intuitively think.

We’ve found that people appreciate being able to connect to a platform, connect with whoever they want to connect with, consume the media they enjoy, find relevant information, and then be gently nudged off the platform in a way that matches their time management goals. Social media could have a healthy and meaningful place in people’s lives. But that’s just not the way it’s designed right now.

What is most important to people using social media today?

First off, don’t pile a whole lot of shame on your social media habits. Thousands of people are employed to give you a thumbs up on that screen and keep you doing what you’re doing. Let’s shift the responsibility for designing safe and fulfilling experiences from users to businesses.

Second, familiarize yourself with the wellness tools already offered. TikTok has a feature that every hour will tell you that you’ve been scrolling for a while and should consider taking a break. On Twitter, custom lists are a feature that already exists; it’s just not the default option. If more people start using these tools, it might convince these companies to refine them.

Most importantly, vote for those interested in technology regulation, because I think that’s where we’re going to see the biggest changes.

Are you a scientist specializing in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed article you’d like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send your suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor, Daisy Yuhas, at pitchmindmatters@gmail.com.

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