As the global epidemic of smart phone addiction settles into normalcy, new research is dispelling some common assumptions about its effects. For example, a recent award-winning UC Berkeley dissertation by then-PhD candidate and now Google employee Galen Panger refutes the popular image of social media as a vehicle for getting people riled up or venting anger and other negative emotions. Instead, Panger found that people tend to use the technology to relax:
“I think most people wouldn’t associate the word ‘calm’ with social media,” [Panger] said. “But one of the more robust findings of the dissertation is that people tend to wind down – feel more relaxed, sleepy, bored – when they browse social media, both Facebook and Twitter.”
Most of the time, it seems people start browsing social media when they have downtime and want to chill, like before bed or waiting for the train.
But overall, and disturbingly, the study found that people experience a “slight tilt” toward negative emotion when they access social media. The triggering of envy in particular is a big problem:
Panger found Facebook posts tend to be more positive than emotional life in general, with posts with photos of ourselves among the most positive. There is evidence in his dissertation and in other research that this spreads envy, a potential source of resentment and antisocial behavior.
“One implication for the general population is to be mindful about spreading envy with your Facebook posts,” advised Panger. “I think anything we can do to reduce the resentment floating around right now would be a good thing.”
It’s good advice, given that smart phones and social media have become ubiquitous, with few practical ways for people to control their dependence on and overuse of the technology. Perhaps limiting their use among teenagers would be a good start, to avoid what appears to be some very damaging effects on the first generation to use them consistently. And there are options to make your phone “dumber,” such as by switching off the alluring color schemes that make us want to check them constantly.
But as more research like Panger’s emerges, at least people will have information about the risks and can be more mindful of the impact this technology is now having on our society.