13 Nov 2018 19:57 IST

Social media use increases depression and loneliness

People not only air and defend their views but vehemently criticise anyone who doesn’t toe their line

So, here we are. A University of Pennsylvania study just released concludes what we’ve all known for years: Social media has always had a dark side but it just got darker.

Melissa G. Hunt, associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychology at this world-famous Ivy League university and the lead author of this study, says: “Here’s the bottom line. Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.”

The weeks leading to last week’s midterm elections in the United States were the most depressing for millions of Americans. Of course, there were many news items which may, just 10 years ago, never have merited mention, even in the back pages of a newspaper. Now, each item is sliced and diced by thousands of people with strong opinions. A Tweet is retweeted with comments even more incendiary than the parent tweet. Someone else piles on the incendiary tweet, and the chain just gets worse.

Before you know it, you have spent a half on hour of your precious life grappling with the sense of hatred that people have for each other. It’s hard enough to change someone’s mind in a 2,800-word essay, how in the world do these tweeters expect to change world opinion in 280 characters?

Opposing views

Social media is depressing because lots of people share views which are diametrically opposite to your own. In the world before Facebook and Twitter, this was not a problem. You always knew they existed but you didn’t have to confront them in all their vigour. As the old adage goes, “What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.”

But what makes social media more depressing is that it repeatedly shows what a nasty place our world really is. All conversations are loud. Everyone has an opinion and is proud to share it publicly. They not only defend their views but they also vehemently criticise anyone who doesn’t toe their line.

A case in point. At Trump’s post-election news conference, a famous but grandstanding reporter for CNN, Jim Acosta, asked Trump a question about the migrant caravan moving north towards the US. Acosta wasn’t asking the president a question — he was giving the president his opinion in the form of a question. “As you know, Mr. President, the caravan is not an invasion... why did you characterise it as such?”

Trump calmly replied, “Because I consider it as such — I have a difference of opinion.”

What followed was a drama made purely for social media. The president, who hates Acosta and CNN, told Acosta to let him do his job. “Honestly, I think you should let me run the country and you run CNN.”

The reporter tried to ask him another question even as a female White House aide walked over to him.

Trump then told him, “That’s enough!”

Acosta continued to try and talk as the aide was seen trying to take the microphone from his hand. She grabbed the microphone but Acosta wouldn’t give it up. This kind of unruly behaviour in front of the leader of the free world, Acosta defended later, was him simply doing his job to get a response.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he told the aide as he continued his question. The aide then kneeled next to Acosta to wait for him to finish speaking.

Acosta continued, asking Trump about the Russian investigation, which the president called “a hoax.”

Trump again told Acosta to put down the microphone. The aide was then able to take the microphone from Acosta and give it to another reporter. It appeared as though Acosta briefly bullied the female aide before handing her the microphone.

The clip was short but social media made this interaction go viral. A Right-wing group released a clip which slowed down some frames and accelerated a few others — both of which had the effect of magnifying Acosta’s bullying of the aide. The White House promptly retweeted this clip using it as justification for cancelling Acosta’s press badge. The Left went crazy in response, some demanding that the president be impeached for infringing upon press freedom.

Unforgiving space

The entire episode drove one more chisel down the chasm between two sides of a deeply divided nation. And that was just one chisel of one morning, with many more to follow that day.

Social media tools are extremely unforgiving, especially for people with a quick draw. There’s no “Oops” button to withdraw what you said or forwarded. And, unlike in the real world, where spoken words disappear into thin air and can even be denied as taken out of context, these monster lines remain with us through eternity. To think that each one of us with a smartphone can tweet our opinions instantly, without further thought, analysis or editorial review is just shocking.

This is what social media has done to us, reducing each of us to hate our fellow being by mobilising those who share our views. There’s a sense of victory in having other people who like your views badger the guy who opposed you. But this sense, in the long run, is dangerous because social media has this remarkable ability to let people harden their beliefs and put a reinforcing bar around them, just like engineers do with concrete.

Over two years ago, this column, excoriating the use of social media, observed: “For all of its power and RoI, social media is a poor substitute for what humans have been doing for thousands of years: reaching out and talking to someone in person.”

It’s a vindication to note that Dr Hunt agrees when she suggests as a remedy: “In general, I would say, put your phone down and be with the people in your life.”