Manuscript: Is Extended Consumption of Social Media Linked to Anxiety Among Teens and Young Adults?

Research proposal 

ABSTRACT

Interacting on social media has changed how people communicate and form relationships, consequently altering the social structure of the new generation. This literature review seeks to clarify the possibility of a relationship, whether a correlation or a causation, between social media usage and anxiety. What motivates young users to interact online, as well as the effects researchers observed on their samples showed that the main reason people use this method of communication is to connect and feel included, even though they are often exposed to more worry and anxiety. However, almost all studies found that the increase of either anxiety or happiness level was tied to personal attributes. Thus, social media as a platform has no tangible effect on individuals by itself but can help predict certain psychological patterns.

General Terms

Human Factors, theory.

Keywords

Social media, anxiety, loneliness, Facebook, Twitter, FOMO.

1.       INTRODUCTION

It is difficult to know whether social media is behind the increase of anxiety and worry the new generation is fighting or if it is the outlet needed for expression. This is because there are other factors that determine how the user is affected by this method of networking. Yet, as the studies reviewed show, it is concerning how the communication process can have a prominent negative outcome when the main reason young Internet users gravitate towards it is to avoid the stress of real life communication.

In this paper, social media interaction motives are discussed, such as anxiety as a motivation before being a possible effect, and the missed opportunities on the web. The review discusses the effects of the social interaction, and how it relates to real life, probing the question of a relationship between social media and anxiety.

2.       MOTIVES

The lack of an online presence can become very worrying in today’s age because the majority of young adults’ peers are there. Other motives also exist for why young adults might feel compelled to interact on social media.

2.1 Anxiety as a Motivation

The association between anxiety and social media is a question that is highlighted by seeking an online channel of communication instead of physical interaction. There is a strong link between the level of anxiety and loneliness and the preference for online Social Interaction POSI (Caplen, 2007). Analyzing 343 undergraduate responses to social interaction motives, Caplen found that users who are normally more anxious will prefer to interact online and more are exposed to negative outcomes compared to people who rated lower on the USLA loneliness and the Social Avoidance and distress scales.

However, Bardi and Brady (2010) found the opposite. The strongest motivation behind college students’ digital communication habits, especially instant messaging IM, was the simple need to connect. Being shy or lonely didn’t relate to neither possibility nor frequency of usage.

This conflict in results is an indication of no certain predicted outcome of being lonely and consequently interacting on social media, but points that lonely people feel the need to connect more.

2.2 Missed Opportunities

Even though studies suggest that people with low self-esteem feel safer interacting online than people with high self-esteem (Forest & Wood, 2012), the same study found that the low-esteem sample didn’t actually use social media more. In that sense, Chang (2015) classifies how university students use social media in two ways: passive and active. Passive users only want to belong in a network and only respond to what others post, while active users want to be popular, they responded and participated by posting or sharing content of their own. This can redefine what “to belong” means to passive users. If they are not participating in the process but only act as an audience, it could make them feel less included in their network.

Frequency of how social media users interact online can reflect how much thought they put into self-representation. Out of an average of 7.3 networks the average social media user belongs to, a sample of 546 participants with an average age of 21 years old reported viewing the profiles of their connections in 3.3 of these networks (Marder, Joinson & Shankar, 2012). The same sample believed that their own profiles were being viewed by connections in 3.68 networks. Moreover, 9 out of 11 participants admitted passing judgments based on what others post on Facebook while still being aware that they are being judged too (Lapides, Chokshi, Carpendale & Greenberg, 2015). Originally striving to avoid social strain, these worries can cause social media to be a more stressful way of communication.

2.3 Content Red Flags

Feedback sought by posting online can sometimes cause more worry, depending on where or by whom they are received (Bazarova, Choi, Sosik, Cosley & Whitlock, 2015).

Using an app that analyzed Facebook posts expressing emotions, researchers asked participants to rate the reactions they got on such posts. Findings confirmed that “likes” are usually taken as approvals have a positive effect, even when it contributes to a level of narcissism (Rosen, Whaling, Rab, Carrier & Cheever, 2013). However, the sample felt worried when they received a comment from someone that wasn’t a close friend on a post they shared personal emotions in.

Increasingly posting updates on social media can also be a sign of extraversion (Marshall, Lefringhausen & Ferenczi, 2015), as extraverts use outward, exhibiting communication to feel more connected. When low self-esteem users post repeatedly about their romantic relationships it can be a sign of insecurity. These findings are a result of analysis of what 555 Facebook users reported after reflecting on posting on social networks and personality.

2.4 Privacy Concerns and Risky Content

More users are using less privacy options to protect their information and posts. In the study conducted by Marder and Shankar (2012), they revealed that only a third of the participants used Facebook’s privacy settings to control who sees their posts. When they didn’t want to interact with someone they simply “unfriended” them. This was the same sample that reported that they believe their profiles are being watched more than they watch their friends’ profiles.

A recent paper on lurking on social media as an anxiety-masking strategy (Osatuyi, 2015) supports this argument. He suggested that those who don’t feel confident in their computer skills tend to become passive users which results in computer anxiety. The same strong relationship was found between computer anxiety and privacy concerns. Again the sample revealed that they weren’t taking advantage of the available privacy settings.

Adding to the dangers of not capitalizing on offered security options is the risk of self-representation by young users. The age group between 12-15 years old are the most likely to broadcast risky posts that could harm their privacy (Koutamanis, Vossen & Valkenburg, 2015). Such posts are met with negative feedback, the study found, though this negative feedback is not related to a specific age.

In such ways, anxiety, loneliness and other social problems may affect why users interact on social media.

3.       EFFECTS

With the increase of social media use, discussing effects can vastly turn generic and inconsistent. Research can only measure social media effect to an extent, but relating the result to personal attributes is key in most social studies.

3.1 Constant Connection

Social media directly affects productivity. Brooks (2015) argues that no matter how participants could demonstrate their multitasking skills, social media affected task performance and contributed to the decrease of the level of happiness. Brooks (2015) also uses the term “technostress” to refer to the stress caused by the use of technology throughout the day. The heavier the usage of social media, the more technostress the sample suffered.

Seeking social support on social media directly affected adolescent students’ mood in a negative way (Frison & Eggermont, 2015). This creates a cycle where users are feeling stressed, going to social media for relief and getting more stressed.

3.2 Cyberbullying and Cyber-Support

In extreme cases, bullying on social media has led to suicide. An example is the number of teen suicide cases associated with the social network ask.fm in 2013 after several bullying instances (Pappas, 2015). Not to assume that bullying is introduced by social media, but it has evolved into cyberbullying which has much more dangerous outcomes even though it is treated more lightly. Ask.com acquired the site later and announced the launch of new features to make the site safer. This shows that interacting online has serious outcomes and what could be dangerous results.

Rainie and Wellman (2012), however, suggest that social media can be so comforting to the extent of being an emotional “bandage” during difficult time. It helps people feel more connected and more reachable with less effort. A study by Dolev-Cohen and Barak (2013), which analyzed 2643 adolescents’ personalities and messaging habits found that stressed participants who expressed their emotional state through messaging received relief from that stress. The same setting and process didn’t affect participants who weren’t stressed to begin with.

As users’ probability to be affected can differ by age, it can also vary by gender. A Pew Center Research conducted by Hampton, Rainie, Lu, Shin and Purcell (2015) found that women who used Twitter often experienced less anxiety and stress. Constant Twitter use made them more aware of stressful situations. However, they decreased their anxiety with the help of Twitter.

3.3 FOMO: The Fear of Missing Out

Feeling anxious or worried about missing a Facebook post, or constantly checking Facebook predicts narcissistic, antisocial, and compulsive behavior which researchers referred to as “iDisorder” (Rosen et al., 2013).

Another type of FOMO, is the fear of missing out on opportunities for good content. Information overload on social media can lead to an increase in anxiety and stress levels after interacting with such vibrant environment. Young social media users choose to endure this stress instead of unfollowing or unfriending over-sharers (Rosen et al., 2013).

Lapides, Chokshi, Carpendale and Greenberg (2015) found that while their sample encountered a negative experience getting their Facebook feed overwhelmed by stories from the same people, they didn’t unfollow or unfriend them even though they contemplated it. The reason behind this is the fear of missing an important update or a potentially interesting story shared by this person in the future. Most of the sample were also aware of “liking” and commenting habits of their peers on the posts, and felt an obligation to return these favors on posts they are associated with whether by being posted on their walls or tagged in. The obligation of interacting out of respect to social code adds to the social strain online social media is supposed to take off the user’s shoulders. FOMO was found to be a cause of distraction during everyday activities and is thus connected to a lower level of well-being and a higher level of participation and anxiety (Przybylski, Murayama, DeHaan & Gladwell, 2013).

3.4 Taking a Break

Taking some time off social media has become a popular detoxing method, or at least an attempt to regain control over social habits online.

Every year during the Christian Lent season, many users choose to give up on social media as a part of personal sacrifice, which in itself a sign of how important the Internet is. The results of one study (Schoenebeck, 2014) that followed three Lent season breaks on Twitter, analyzed tweets via Twitter’s API through three years found that 64 percent of users who announced their intentions to take a Twitter break succeeded in doing so. They kept off twitter for the target period and announced their comeback with a celebratory tweet. 13.3 percent of those who intended to keep off twitter tweeted once or twice during that period, usually to express an emotion or announce personal news. Schoenebeck also found that when users talked or posted about their break from social media, they used “real life” to describe what they thought they were missing on by being online all the time. This sample admitted that giving up social media for the duration of one week is a hard resolution to follow.

Social media has been exercising more control over users’ social habits. A study analyzed the behavior of users who checked their social accounts more than six times a day (Wang, Niiya, Mark, Reich & Warschauer, 2015) and found that continual checkers had no control over their social media use and that they were “addicted to the Internet”. The more participants checked their channels daily, the less positive mood they were in.

3.5 Social Effects Vs. Social Media Effects

Mirroring these concerns, Frison and Eggermont (2015) emphasize on the importance of distinguishing between social media interaction, reactions, and seeking support and doing these activities through other means of communication. Both in research and personal outlook, they point that previous studies didn’t take such distinctions between how users seek support from their family or friends in real life and on Facebook into consideration.

Lundy and Drouin (2016) found that communicating via instant messaging lowered the stress level for their sample of 165 undergraduate students. The sample was suffering from high social anxiety levels. For this sample, communicating via face to face and phone resulted in the same degree of stress relief.

In addition to that, sample members who had low anxiety levels actually felt more stressed interacting with their friends through social media in comparison with face to face and phone communication. Xiaoqian, Chen and Popiel (2015) argued that social media isn’t related to social support to begin with. Even if social media users reap positive and supportive responses from their friends, it isn’t similar to offline support.

Applying the same approach on anxiety, a study also investigated whether Facebook anxiety share similarities with real world social anxiety (McCord, Rodebaugh & Levinson, 2014). By overviewing these types of studies, a clearer picture of what type of anxiety the user might be experiencing due to excessive online networking.

A clear correlation between Facebook anxiety and social anxiety was found. Users with higher social anxiety experienced higher level of stress when interacting on Facebook.

4.       CONCLUSION AND FUTURE RESEARCH

Social media by itself doesn’t create anxiety that didn’t exist before. It can raise existing anxiety levels at times and help at others, depending on how, when and by whom it is used.

Because there is evidence supporting both sides of the argument, a relevant result is reached by incorporating personal attributes. This review concludes that social media as a platform is not necessarily a cause or a relief for anxiety issues. It mainly relates to personality differences in interacting individuals. The hypothesis that there is a link between social media and anxiety is true, but it isn’t a causation relationship. Anxious people don’t always use social media more, which is a limitation on determining social media effects on users with anxiety compared to those who don’t have social anxiety. The literature showed that social media is more framed as an amplifier of an existing problem for some users while providing immediate relief of social problems.

These results might help in employing certain channels of social media to target users with anxiety issues to help them, since it can nurture the feeling of being connected and part of a group. Missed opportunities of capitalizing on social media benefits as a safe medium for anxious people to interact could lead to future research on the effect would the increased use of social media could have on young users with self-esteem problems over a longer period of time.

Further research can be helpful in predicting personality problems by analyzing how individuals interact and share online.

Knowing the helpful aspects of social networking for worrying people can contribute in creating a safer environment online through websites and apps designed to help these users overcome anxiety. And more importantly encourage them to use interact online more.

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