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To grasp social media’s effects, we need a grasp on social media!

Because more than two-thirds (67%) of the US’s adult Net users now use Facebook,* you’d think that it’s common knowledge that Facebook really can’t be described as a single activity for one person, much less a single activity for everybody who uses it. You’d think that we’d take headlines that make generalizations about people’s Facebook use with a grain of salt (especially those written back when Facebook was still teens’ top social-media tool).

Because even for one person, Facebook is many different activities that represent many levels of engagement – e.g., passively glancing through the latest items in one’s newsfeed, actively “liking” something, creatively commenting on it, posting a photo and tagging friends in it, seeking support for a cause, or getting totally caught up in a game. And that’s only a partial list.

Why is this important? Because it helps us get some much-needed clarity on social media’s impacts on all of us, including our kids. [Even though kids have been diversifying their social media use, Facebook, with its 1.1 billion users, is still a symbol of all social media; researchers certainly treat it as such.]

User, site, content: All moving targets

“The key to understanding why reputable studies are so starkly divided on the question of what Facebook does to our emotional state may be in simply looking at what people actually do when they’re on Facebook,” reports author and psychologist Maria Konnikova in The New Yorker magazine. The headline her editors gave her piece is as off-balance as most of the news coverage of social media, but her reporting is balanced and thoughtful. She quotes social psychologist Sam Gosling at University of Texas as saying that not only does Facebook use differ from person to person, but the users change too. It’s confirming to hear a psychologist say what seems so hard even for adults (even those who are Facebook users) to understand: that Facebook is the content of our lives, which change along with us, so what we see in Facebook can only be a freeze frame of a changing life within a living, moving tangle of lives (something a task force I served on tried to convey in the title of our report).

So there are all kinds of research conclusions, positive and negative. For example, “Facebook could cause problems in relationships, by increasing feelings of jealousy” or envy; but on the other hand, studies have found that “using Facebook makes us happier,” “increases social trust and engagement and even encourages political participation.” In fact, “the prevalence of social media [as a whole]” may even increase our media literacy because psychologist Matthew Lieberman, who made that last finding, found that social media has “fundamentally changed the way we read and watch: we think about how we’ll share something, and whom we’ll share it with, as we consume it. The mere thought of successful sharing activates our reward-processing centers, even before we’ve actually shared a single thing.”

Active use => positive impact

The fascinating takeaway from Konnikova’s piece is that the conclusions about Facebook’s impacts are based on the kinds of engagement these studies examine. If a study’s looking at passive use, the overriding impact is more likely to be boredom or something even more negative. If the level of engagement is active or even creative, the conclusion is likely to be positive.

But here’s the irony: The busier we are – the more we try to multitask and just use Facebook passively or inattentively – the more negative our experience of it will be. “The world of constant connectivity and media, as embodied by Facebook, is [Facebook’s] worst enemy.” It creates much more passive use, which “may be why general studies of overall Facebook use … so often show deleterious effects on our emotional state. Demands on our attention lead us to use Facebook more passively than actively, and passive experiences, no matter the medium, translate to feelings of disconnection and boredom.”

Need to pay attention to this too

If researchers don’t see this, at least Facebook users (including parents) can when they see research cited (the importance of presence, focus, attentiveness and mindfulness has grown, it seems). Research on today’s user-driven, very social media use has to be done differently from research on media consumption in the mass media era. Of course they have to start somewhere, and some of the many academic researchers who grew up in the mass-media era may still see through that lens, but readers who worry about social media’s impact on children need to know that…

  • Research, like the media and users it studies, reflects and is adapting to changing conditions too.
  • The content of social media is the content of our lives, so…
  • The context of what we see in social media is everyday life, not an online service or app, so…
  • The people closest to the user and his/her social context – e.g., a parent or trusted teacher, not the people behind a Web site or app – are the best first resort for resolving something that happens in social media and best regulator of how a child uses it
  • It’s difficult for a parent or educator to extrapolate anything very useful about a child’s social media experiences from news stories about a study that’s about people’s use of social media, so…
  • The child or user is key to figuring out what’s going on in the “real life” context and to finding any solution that might be needed.
  • For impacts to be positive, regardless of age, the best approach is active or creative but temperate, mindful use of social media.

And one more takeaway: If we can get enough emotional distance from the “drama” of media coverage to see that what we see in social media “isn’t the problem” but “the symptom,” as Konnikova put it, we’ll be modeling for our children how to gain some healthy independence from the drama in their social lives (expressed only partly in social media!). We’ll be modeling the media literacy that has never been needed more than now.

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