Social Media and the Disconnect from Reality

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Psychology
Social Media and the Disconnect from Reality

Author: Ben Libby, Creative Director, Bear Notch Studio
Contributing Author: Ashley Santangelo, LMSW, Evolve Career Coaching
Editor: Kathy Bizzoco, Green Frog Publishing


This time is not the first that I’ve completely deleted all of my social media accounts. I’m sure many people go through this on a monthly or yearly basis. When my last attempt at promoting positivity fell flat on its face, I began to notice that friends and colleagues would “like” and/or respond to more of my negative posts than the positive ones.

I recently exchanged texts with a young woman to make plans for a potential first date. She proclaimed that feminism is the all-seeing eye and all men should bow down. Don't get me wrong—I totally support equal rights, but she went completely overboard. Unable to really push past the illogical conversation and persuaded I that was cheap, I figured I'd try a new experiment with social media.

The plan was primarily to see if a pre-made positive post supporting equal rights (especially feminism) would receive more positive feedback than a negative post against feminism and equal rights.

Can you guess which post received the most responses and actions? The negative one, of course!

I'm a sucker for psychology, the human condition, and why we behave the way we do. It's all relevant as I dig deeper into UX (user experience) and understand the way we think, act, and use products. Human behavior is the primary objective when designing new technology. Simply put, understanding human behavior helps us create a better end-user experience.

On this beautiful Wednesday summer morning, I have the absolute pleasure of speaking with Ashley Santangelo, a Licensed Social Worker and Professional Career Coach in New York City. I'm picking her brain on with complex questions about our behavior and why we are disconnecting from reality through social media.

[Bear Notch Studio]: I started questioning emotions and thought processes from this simple experiment. I'm hoping that you will be willing to discuss why we generally disconnect from positive experiences and react more to negative ones?

[Ashley Santangelo]: That is pretty puzzling isn’t, it? So, when using social media, it's rather easy to drift into an “auto-pilot” mode in our brains. Even if we open these feeds with the intention of going to a certain page or reaching out to a certain person, before we know it, we are scrolling through the irresistible “feed!” And we do so with pretty small attention spans.

Did you know that the average time people look at a social media post is six seconds? If you have already entered the “auto-pilot” realm, you're not mindful, you are compulsively searching for the post that will trigger a quick reaction or be compelling in some way, and that decision is made in just a few seconds. When we are in that kind of mindset, positive posts (unless they have a very unique, captivating visual quality) can seem mundane, and a post that has the capacity to muddy the waters a bit seems more entertaining, sexier. So that is why, in those situations, people can be more drawn to posts that seem more negative.

[BNS]: Ever since I deleted some of my social media accounts, I keep catching myself wanting to post events that have happened to me. So, let’s say something interesting happens, I want to photograph it and then start “brainstorming” captions for my photograph, for a quick social post. Do you think this is a natural type of sharing behavior?

[AS]: I think it’s natural to want to share life events with others. Sharing the joys and oddities of being alive with others is completely organic and helps us feel connected to one another. However, I think that social media sites (particularly Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat) have made us feel more compelled to do this constantly. I remember being a teenager in the late '90s and early 2000s—this was even before MySpace! (Think AOL Instant Messenger era.) Once in a while, we would get a camera and take photos of ourselves doing amusing things and then have a good laugh when the photos developed (remember those days?). Or we would photograph scenery, concerts, etc. Basically, we would take a picture of anything we thought was worth sharing with others. Now, the bar of “what is worth sharing with others” has been set pretty low—I mean, would you have EVER thought of taking an avocado toast selfie for the world to see in 1999?

Perhaps people compulsively share photos of their dinner because that is how they express appreciation for the little things in life, or it’s their way of sharing pride and joy about cooking with others. There are many reasons why people choose to post photos from their life all day, but it is the branding aspect of it that is absolutely an effect of these sharing platforms. Not only do we feel compelled to post, we feel compelled to caption, hashtag, and connect our snapshot to current trends. Outside marketing, I don't remember this aspect of sharing being common at all before smartphones and social media became widespread.

[BNS]: Is our brain aroused by negative thinking and responding controversially?

[AS]: Well, I think we need to separate negative thinking and posting controversial responses. They don’t necessarily need to be grouped into the same category, although I get that they both can result in actions that seem off-putting. Let’s first focus on posting controversial responses. There can be several motivations for this. Perhaps somebody who posts a controversial or unpopular opinion is not posting it from a negative space. Social media, for all of its flaws, has become a popular medium for self-expression. Some people do not mean to be controversial; they are just more outspoken about what is passionate to them than others. Others do post controversial things to produce a reaction. Usually, these people exhibit similar behavior off of social media, and they use the internet as another mechanism where they can obtain gratification from eliciting certain emotions in others.

[BNS]: Why do couples need to validate relationships by adding their relationship status to their profiles? 

[AS]: Well, our intimate relationships often become sort of an extended part of our identity. I'm not sure that the intention of making a relationship public is necessarily to validate it. I am sure it is with some couples, but like the controversial post example, I think the best way to gauge a couple’s motives for what they put on social media is to look at what their relationship is like off social media. Does it look the same? Are they looking for ways to validate their relationship in their everyday life? Remember, if you are seeking validation for anything, there must be some uncertainty attached to it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need to seek it to begin with. So, if you know of a couple who has a rocky relationship but you wouldn’t know it from their Facebook pages—yes, perhaps there is some validation going on. Based on what I have learned about human behavior, my best guess is that they do this because it gives them a sense of safety. They want to hold on to what is good in the relationship (even if that is very little) and connecting with the positive images and good memories helps them feel safe.

[BNS]: Do you think it’s ultimately boiling down to individuals filling an empty void within their thought processes to self-validate?

[AS]: I definitely think that many of us use social media, and an array of other things, to fill voids all of the time. Humans do not like to feel uncomfortable, unloved, or unsafe. If our actions and communities on social media bring us a sense of (real or perceived) comfort, love, or safety, then we naturally will run to it with open arms. This isn’t an excuse to justify being on social media all day, or to sacrifice other responsibilities or relationships. Rather, it's a reminder we're human and when we're lacking something important we will want to fill that void. Self-validation may play a role in some of these behaviors, but I think the void speaks more to the root of it.

[BNS]: As millennials, we’ve matured to a certain point. I’m actually worried about Gen-Z and Alpha accidentally pointing the barrel of the social media gun at their heads. What are your thoughts on our future generations?

[AS]: Well, this is a little bit of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, I have witnessed Gen Z use social media for excellent purposes. On the other hand, the terrible epidemic of cyber-bullying causing suicides in kids who are very young—we are talking like 13-years-old and younger. I saw a news article today that said that a nine-year-old committed suicide because he was bullied about being gay on social media. These unfortunate events are terrible. Yes, bullying has existed forever, but before social media, you had the option of going home and not be saturated by it. But these kids can’t escape. That makes me very worried. 

Overall, it does seem like Generation Z is fairly altruistic and I do think that bullies are the exception to the rule. But the impact of their actions has deadly consequences, and I think what makes or breaks the next two generations’ relationships to social media is this: Are they going to use it for positivity and innovation? Or are they going to use it to inflate their own egos by putting down others?

[BNS]: In fact, I’ve seen young kids comment on news and media sections with extremely crude language and hate speech. Should social media companies take more action to protect other young children and those sensitive to language from seeing comments like this?

[AS]: Definitely. Hate speech is not OK. And I think kids need to be educated between the difference of free speech and hate speech—especially given the direction of where our society is going. We have had some recent setbacks, but overall the arc is moving toward less social tolerance for hatred and bigotry. Social media companies are among the most powerful in the world, and with power comes social responsibility. They should absolutely take more action to restrict hate speech.

[BNS]: It’s nice to disconnect after a long day of work, but are we doing it the wrong way by logging into social media and giving our two cents to other people’s status updates and posts?

[AS]: Yes, it is great to disconnect! I don’t want to judge the way people chose to unwind as “right” or “wrong,” but I will leave you with this: Are people feeling relaxed after letting off some steam on social media or are they simply riling themselves up? Maybe some people do feel some relief after making a few controversial posts and then calling it a night. I probably would not feel relief after that, but we all have different personalities. The big question is this: What function is social media serving? Is it simply the 2018 way of letting off some steam? Is it part of a compulsion? Is it a desire to create conflict? To start a debate? The list can go on. Whatever you are doing—be it controversial social media posts, binge-watching Stranger Things, or playing with your cat—how is it serving you? If you need rest, is it restoring you? If spending time on social media serves you in useful ways, then go for it. But if you finish it feeling more riled up than you did when you started… you might want to find a more effective way to unwind!

[BNS]: Well! This discussion gives us a lot to process, and we sincerely hope that social media companies will be able to curb some of the terrifying situations kids and adults are creating with their platforms. Speaking with you was an absolute pleasure. I plan to write a few more articles about psychology and user experiences down the road.


Ashley Santangelo is a social worker, career coach, workshop facilitator, and writer from Staten Island, NY. She received her undergraduate degree in English from State University of New York at New Paltz in 2006 and her Master’s Degree in Social Work with a clinical concentration in May 2012. She has worked for institutions such as the Mental Health Association of New York City and New York University and currently works for the Freedom Institute as a Workshop Facilitator for adolescents. She is the Founder of Evolve Services, a small career coaching practice in NYC. Ashley has articles published on LinkedIn, Medium, The New Social Worker, and serves as the Mental Health Subject Matter Expert blogger on jenreviews.com. She is also a Facebook and Instagram user and has a history of boldly broadcasting her political stances on various social justice and environmental issues (but has recently toned this down a bit). At the end of the day, she likes to wind down by cuddling with her husband and cat.

If you're interested in finding out more, you can connect with Ashley on Linkedin and visit her Evolve Services website for personal coaching, resume writing, and lifestyle services.