The Anti-Social Network


While numbers of reported mental health problems have risen exponentially in the last decade, Emily Longworth investigates the real-life effects of the cyber revolution on our peace of mind.

The social environment we are now immersed in is slowly hurting our mental health. We are at the height of the technology revolution, yet we are becoming more likely to neglect our health than ever before. The probability of a correlation between this decline in wellbeing and our dependency on an online life is becoming increasingly more likely.

A recent study conducted by the University of Waterloo, Canada, supports this hypothesis. The study highlighted the negative effects of social network use on the self-esteem of the user. While originally the research set out to examine the ability of social networks (especially Facebook) to help self-expression, the results established that they have almost the opposite effect.

Participants in the study took a survey that measured self-esteem so that their responses to social network use could be grouped accordingly. They were then asked about their own self-disclosure on social networking sites. When users with low self-esteem posted social updates with expressions of negativity, they received less response by online friends than a user with high self-esteem would receive for similar negative self-disclosure.

Contrastingly, participants with low self-esteem would get more attention and affirmation for positive self-disclosure. This implies that friends of those with low self-esteem will respond more to expressions of positivity than negativity, possibly in an effort to encourage more positive attitudes. This is a problem for a number of reasons.

Primarily, there should not be so much of an emphasis placed on “the importance of positive-thinking”. Staying positive has been advertised as a safeguard against long-term unhappiness, but several sources show that this approach to minding our mental health is counter-productive. There is a grievous misconception that ‘having the right attitude’ can change the chemical make-up of the brain. When more of an emphasis is placed on being positive and happy, people who suffer from low depression and self-esteem are immediately more isolated by their need to express discontentment.

This explains why many of the social network users from the study found themselves feeling disproportionately worse after they received poor responses to their negative self-disclosure. The societal response to unhappiness forces many people into feigned states of happiness. This is the gradual effect of social networks on how we interact: we are more inclined to be dishonest about how we feel if we will get more validation for positivity than negativity.

Social network users are also more inclined to conceal the extent of their unhappiness for another reason: the number of people exposed to the negative sentiment is massively greater than in any other life situation. The study claims that: “People spend time with only 24% of their Facebook friends in face-to-face interactions,” and this is especially damaging for people with low self-esteem. Much of their negative self-disclosure is met with open disinterest or rejection by a larger group of people, which often isolates and alienates the user over long periods of time.

It is human nature to have an aversion to hearing bad news; it serves as a self-preservation mechanism. This generally does not become a problem for our mental health until we move our lives online. There is a huge difference between self-expression in the comfort of trusted friends and self-expression in writing in the public domain with no personal interaction. Essentially, Facebook is a poor forum for people to express themselves for this reason; it is inherently less natural than face-to-face communication.

Another study maintains that expressing negativity is wholesome to the person and to relationships with others when it fosters a connection, and when empathy is shared. Although equally, negative self-disclosure ‘loses its relationship-boosting benefits” when it is “constant or indiscriminate”.’

In acknowledging this, we find a problem. We have to find a common ground between the inherent need in everyone to express themselves honestly and sincerely for the good of our mental health, and the societal impetus to reject excessively negative attitudes. The authors of the research recommend finding a more balanced way of using social networks.

Considering the results show that people are more inclined to respond to positive self-disclosure, the study concluded that “people with low self-esteem might benefit from making more positive and less negative updates”. But this is without compromising the feelings of the user through outright dishonesty. Moreover, people are advised to be selective in what negative things they express through social networks, as this often generates more negativity in response.

Social networks are the playground of our generation, and years of increasingly impersonal and unnatural forms of communication are beginning to take their toll on us. More emphasis should be placed on truthfully positive life experiences as they are more tangible and allow us to hold on to reality in a society of increasingly alienated and contrived communication.