In the age of social media, we’re connected more than ever. So why are loneliness and sadness on the rise? Are social media friendships unfulfilling? In today’s show, Professor Tim Bono, Ph.D., an expert in psychological health and happiness, shares how we can keep a balanced perspective regarding social media and not let it lead to depression, addiction or envy. Click on the player below to listen now!
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Guest information for ‘Social Media’ Podcast Episode
Tim Bono, PhD is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He has won several teaching awards and thousands of students have taken his popular courses on the Psychology of Young Adulthood and the Science of Happiness. He is an expert consultant on psychological health and happiness for a number of national media outlets, including CNN, Fast Company, The Associated Press, and several public radio stations. Happiness 101 (previously published as When Likes Aren’t Enough): Simple Secrets to Smart Living & Well-Being is his first book.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Social Media’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: You’re listening to the Psych Central Podcast, where guest experts in the field of psychology and mental health share thought-provoking information using plain, everyday language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello, everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of The Psych Central Podcast. Calling into the show today, we have Dr. Tim Bono, Dr. Bono is a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. He is an expert consultant on psychological health and happiness for a number of national media outlets, including CNN, Fast Company, The Associated Press and several public radio stations. He’s also the author of the best selling book, Happiness 101. Dr. Bono, welcome to the show.
Dr. Tim Bono: Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here.
Gabe Howard: Well, we’re very excited. Obviously, social media is everywhere. Social media is here to stay, why do you think that it’s such a hot topic?
Dr. Tim Bono: Well, I think part of the reason it’s become a hot topic is because it has become so pervasive in the culture. If you look at the stats from the Pew Research Organization or other groups that collect data on this, an overwhelmingly large number of people are on social media and are using it frequently. And it’s also something that is relatively new. And so with something that has become so much a part of our culture and our day to day way of interacting with one another, that has posed a question to many people of to what extent is this actually affecting us and is it having an impact on other things that are occurring, such as increasing rates of depression and anxiety and other forms of mental distress? We know that both of those have been increasing simultaneously over the last decade. And the question is, well, is one of them causing the other? And I think that a lot of people have become curious about that.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I always think about whenever these conversations crop up in the media is that it seems like every new thing is bad for us. I remember when the
Internet first started, I’m that age, so I remember before the Internet and then after the Internet. So the Internet starts and the first thing that everybody talks about is, oh, this is going to connect us like never before. This is wonderful. And then it only took a few months before everybody was like, the Internet is horrible. There’s, it’s just filled with pornography and fighting. And this was all before social media. And then everybody hated the Internet. Now the Internet is back to being powerful and social media is what we hate. Do you think that this is just a trend, just a theme that everything new at first is exciting and good and then immediately becomes bad and then it will balance out?
Dr. Tim Bono: It’s the nature of almost anything in the world that nothing is entirely good or entirely bad, and often what captures our attention initially is the novelty and the exciting parts and all the really cool features of something. But inevitably, over time, we come to realize that it also comes with some negative things if it’s not used appropriately. So, yeah, I do think that initially our attention is drawn to the positive things, but it’s just like anything else, as you say, with the Internet or even 100 years ago or more when cars first came onto the scene, they were initially this really cool way to connect people and do your business more efficiently and more effectively. But we realized, oh, wait a second, if cars are not used under the appropriate conditions and the appropriate circumstances, they can actually be really harmful. So the solution has never been, OK, let’s get rid of this thing. Let’s get rid of the Internet or let’s get rid of cars. But let’s think about how to be wise consumers of this. And I think that that is where we’re at when it comes to social media. I don’t know of any psychologists who are saying, let’s get rid of social media, but instead let’s bring awareness to the fact that if it’s not used correctly, it could have some harmful effects on us and it’s worthwhile for us to bring attention to those things.
Gabe Howard: I really like what you’re saying there. Now, one of the other themes that comes up in all of these conversations is social media is bad because it’s addictive. I think it’s pretty clear that social media can be very addictive. So kind of don’t want to discuss whether or not it’s addictive. Let’s assume that it is addictive. Why is it so addictive?
Dr. Tim Bono: Part of the reason why social media is so addictive is because there’s so much uncertainty about what content we’re going to be seeing as soon as we log in, and that’s something that economists and psychologists and neuroscientists have known for a long time, that part of what makes anything addictive is the maybe factor that maybe when we go on, we’re going to see something cute or funny or something that is irritating or frustrating, or we’re going to see our crazy uncle’s political post that’s going to make us really upset. And it’s the same reason why people become addicted to the slot machines in Las Vegas, because maybe when they pull the lever of that slot machine, there’s going to be a big payoff. But maybe there isn’t. And it is that uncertainty, that curiosity that keeps people going back more and
more. It’s the reason why people get addicted to slot machines, but not to vending machines. In both cases, you’re putting money in, but it’s the one where there’s certainty of a reward. You know that you’re going to get that bag of potato chips at the vending machine, but you don’t know if you’re going to get a reward at the slot machine. And it’s the same underlying mechanism that keeps us going back more and more to Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat, because every time you log on, you don’t know what you’re going to see. Even if we know intellectually it’s a waste of time that curiosity and the uncertainty keeps us going back more and more.
Gabe Howard: A lot of social media platforms refer to your followers as friends, we have so many friends on Facebook, for example, is having a lot of friends or followers on social media. Is it the same as having that many friends in real life?
Dr. Tim Bono: It’s not really the same thing, because for a lot of people, they’ll tell you that they don’t even know all the people or that they haven’t even met in person, all of the people who are following them or who they are, quote, friends with on these platforms. We do know that from a psychological perspective, arguably the single strongest predictor of our happiness has to do with the quality, friendships and relationships that we have with other people. But we’re talking about actual three dimensional people who you spend time with and who you develop an authentic relationship with. And on social media, very often those relationships are very superficial and they don’t get much beyond a like or a comment or a share or re tweet or something. And that’s not really the basis of a long lasting relationship with someone who will be there for you if you’re going through a rough time and you need a shoulder to lean on or if you’re having a really good day and you need someone to sort of help you extend the positivity and share that happiness with very often those followers and, quote, relationships on social media are just too superficial. And it’s much more worthwhile to develop and invest your time and effort in those relationships that are with the people who you’re interacting with more meaningfully on a day to day basis.
Gabe Howard: I’m really not surprised to hear this, because even though technology has made it easier to communicate and connect, rates of loneliness and sadness are increasing. Why is this if we’re more connected than ever? Why do we feel farther apart?
Dr. Tim Bono: Yeah, it’s a really good question, because we do know that those rates of sadness and anxiety and isolation have been increasing and a lot of it has to do with the fact that the connection that we are perceiving is not authentic, that very often that sense of connection is based on these media personas that we are crafting on the Internet. But that doesn’t necessarily correspond to the more in depth connections that would really be worthwhile for our sense of happiness and wellbeing. Day to day, the strongest predictor of happiness has to
do with social connection. Well, the biggest barrier to happiness is social comparison. And we know that that is the other piece that the social media platforms has enabled. It’s really hard to be happy if we constantly have our head over our shoulder and we’re wondering how do we measure up to other people around us or if we constantly are filled with a sense of envy over what other people have that we ourselves don’t have. And that’s one of the things we know that tends to be associated with large amounts of use on social media is that very often people scroll through and they see, oh, this coworker just got a new raise or a promotion or this person is driving a new fancy car. These people are out on this amazing vacation right now that I would never be able to afford myself. And that sense of envy, that sense of social comparison is, again, a fundamental barrier to a sense of well-being. And that’s where we have to be cautious about the ways that we’re using social media. If it’s the starting point for what will then lead to authentic connection with another person, great. Use it for that. But if we’re constantly going through and we’re only using it as a means of social comparison, that’s where it can be problematic.
Gabe Howard: Let’s talk about the concept of getting instant support from other people and let’s use the example of I’m having a bad day and I want support from others, is it useful to post that distress on social media to easily and quickly get those responses to get those, you know, sort of virtual hugs?
Dr. Tim Bono: It depends a lot on the nature of the distress and the ultimate response and what that can lead to. I think that there’s a term now that people are using called vague booking, where people to say in need of prayers or something. And you have no idea. Well, what is this mean? Is this person actually in distress? Do they need something? And so there are some people who are doing that only as a way to get attention. And others, though, will use it as a way to see, well, who’s going to reach out to me, who then I can follow up with, and then maybe go get lunch with their coffee and then continue that conversation. So I think it depends on the nature of the distress. If you’re going through an extremely difficult time, if you’ve endured a major catastrophe, those short, quick little likes or comments, you might provide some momentary relief. But very likely it’s going to be much more important to talk to somebody, whether that is a trained professional or just someone in your own personal network who you can have a more in-depth conversation with, because we know that one of the characteristics of distress is that those negative emotions can easily blow things out of proportion or cause a further period of distress that can be problematic. But the act of talking through that distress, translating that distress into language for an extended period of time, that can be an extremely effective way to gain insight and move beyond that distress. But the very quick little comments and things from Facebook, if it’s something serious, I would not advise doing that. I mean, if it’s just you’re kind of having a bad day and you’ll get a quick pick me up by a lot of comments, I don’t see any harm in that. But for the more serious stuff, no, it’s not necessarily a great idea to do that on social media. That’s where you want to rely on that more authentic, strong social network of actual people who you have a deep relationship with, who you can draw on in that circumstance.
Gabe Howard: We’ll be right back after these messages.
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Gabe Howard: And we’re back discussing how social media impacts our happiness with Dr. Tim Bono. Let’s say that you want to exchange an idea. Is it better to exchange that idea in person or via social media?
Dr. Tim Bono: Well, again, I think it depends a lot on the particular idea that you’re trying to exchange. So if it’s an idea of, hey, does anybody have a recommendation for a roofing company or, you know, hey, we need a plumber, and anybody have any suggestions that kind of low level stuff go for it? I think that it’s perfectly fine to do that. But when we’re talking about something as complicated as differences in philosophical ideology or, you know, with all the political stuff going on, who’s voting for whom, very often when people are exchanging very controversial and deeply held convictions, that involves a level of emotional intelligence when you’re trying to resolve a major conflict where people are not seeing eye to eye. And so much of our ability to exchange ideas and to resolve a conflict is not just about the words that are exchanged, but it has to do with the non-verbal, you know, the timing and the pace of the conversation and vocal intonation and other characteristics that you can’t get just from reading the words that comprise an individual’s thoughts. And so that’s where if you’re really getting into it with somebody much better is to meet with that person, you know, have that conversation one on one so that all of those other nonverbal that are so important to our ability to communicate can enter in. And that is much more likely to get you a lot further versus just spouting out your ideas and then going back at your leisure to see what the other person has to say. So that’s not going to necessarily lead to any good outcomes, especially if the two people are getting really heated.
Gabe Howard: I don’t know, this is kind of an aside, but this is sort of the argument against trying to hash out these major issues via like text messages or e-mail as well. It’s all part and parcel except with social media. It also has the addition of it’s public, at least the email argument or the texting argument, at least that only remains between two people.
Dr. Tim Bono: Yes, and, you know, there are all those memes and stuff where suddenly two people are going at it on Facebook and then everybody else is watching with buckets of popcorn because they’re so entertained by the whole thing.
Gabe Howard: To switch gears ever so slightly, I’m a big proponent of sleep hygiene, and I don’t believe that you should be on your mobile device before bed at all. I don’t believe you should use tablets, computers, televisions, anything in your master bedroom. That’s my level of. You know, you’re trying to get into the zone for sleeping. Even playing just a game on your phone is too far for me. But I know that I am in the minority and that most of the world they use their phones as their alarm clocks which means they are tapping away on the things moments before going to bed. What’s your opinion of browsing social media moments before you turn out the lights and close your eyes to go to sleep?
Dr. Tim Bono: Well, I understand why people do it, and I will admit that I have been guilty of it myself in the past. I think you’re exactly right that most people, in terms of their behavior, that’s what they do. But if you ask any researcher, anybody who is sleep psychology or health and wellness or sleep hygiene in particular, I think that there is generally a consensus that it is a really bad idea and it’s a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One, our ability to fall asleep and remain asleep is predicated entirely on the brain’s ability to slow down. And there are a couple of reasons why having a device just inches from your face right before you’re trying to fall asleep is going to prevent that. One has to do very simply with the light that is entering your visual system. When light enters the visual system, it suppresses the release of a hormone called melatonin, and that is it’s released so that we can feel drowsy and then fall asleep and remain asleep. But if you have all this light pouring in to your brain, it’s basically sending a signal, hey, it’s daytime, not time for sleep right now.
Dr. Tim Bono: And that can then prevent you from falling asleep. The other reason why it can be problematic to have that device in front of you is that often it’s involved with some activity that is keeping the brain really alert. So, for example, you mentioned, you know, playing a game that requires a high level of cognitive effort. That is a surefire way to keep the brain really, really active. Or sometimes we’re looking at e-mails or we’re looking at our calendar for the next day, which could be a source of anxiety. If there’s things coming up that that are going to be anxiety provoking or sometimes it’s scrolling through social media and seeing things that fill us with envy or despair or distress or other things that are just keeping the brain really active between the light and the content of what we’re doing. It can sort of lead into this vicious cycle where then we don’t get good sleep the next day. And so then we’re on edge. We can’t focus on our work as well the next day. And it just kind of creates a spiral effect that only gets worse and worse over time.
Gabe Howard: Dr. Bono, we’re nearing the end of the show, so I have the big question. Let’s say that a person finds that social media is negatively impacting their psychological health. What are some behaviors that actually can make them happier?
Dr. Tim Bono: Sure, well, there are a lot of findings from the behavioral sciences that have been shown to be very effective, just very small behaviors that we can incorporate. As you mentioned, I wrote a book that provides kind of an overview of a lot of those, but a few of my favorite activities have to do very simply with the practice of gratitude. You know, we talked earlier about the impact of social comparison on our well-being and how much that can be a detriment to us. Well, the antidote to social comparison is the act of gratitude, because instead of getting caught up in what other people have or how we wish our lives could be different, the practice of gratitude is really placing emphasis on the good things that already exist in our lives, but that we might simply have lost sight of. And study after study is showing that people who spend just a couple minutes a week focusing on good things in their lives show increases in how they feel about their lives. Overall, they report more optimism about what’s to come in the future. They even get sick less often.
Dr. Tim Bono: So there are a lot of benefits, just, you know, maybe once a week or so to sit down and think, OK, what are some good things in my life that I might have lost sight of? And that simple practice of gratitude can really go a long way. A few of the other very simple behaviors have to do with getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. We talked about the importance of that. The brain is very active when we’re sleeping and does a lot to strengthen neural circuits that play out in emotion regulation. Exercise is another one that’s important to prioritize at least a couple of days a week. We want 30 minutes of good cardiovascular activity that releases neurotransmitters that are essentially the brain’s feel good chemicals. And the other one that I’d say is really important is prosocial behavior. Get involved in the community, find something that is important to you, that allows you to feel a sense of connection to other people. And that sense of connection to other people is, again, foundational for a sense of well-being.
Gabe Howard: Thank you so much for agreeing to be here. Where can folks find you and your book to learn more?
Dr. Tim Bono: The book is available on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or many other local book vendors. The title is Happiness 101: Simple Secrets to Smart Living and Well-Being. And I have a faculty webpage at Washington University in St. Louis. And if you Google my name, you’ll find more information about the kind of work that I do and the ideas in my book.
Gabe Howard: Very cool, I hope everybody grabs your book. Now, I understand that the book had a name change as well. What was the previous name of Happiness 101?
Dr. Tim Bono: When the book first came out in hardcover in 2018, it was called When Likes Aren’t Enough, A Crash Course in the Science of Happiness. And the book in part deals with social media and talks about the impact it has on us and simple ways that we can engage in other behaviors that are a stronger predictor of our happiness. But when the book was re-released earlier this year, they decided to give it a different title. And that new title is Happiness 101.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful. Well, thank you again for being here and listen up, everybody, thank you for listening. And I hope you got a lot out of the show. If you did, please subscribe, rate, and review wherever you downloaded this podcast. And we have our own Facebook group. It’s very private. It’s very exclusive. And I’m inviting you personally. Head over to PsychCentral.com/FBShow and it’ll take you right there. And remember, you can get one week of free, convenient, affordable, private online counseling any time anywhere, simply by visiting BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral. And we will see everybody next week.
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This article originally appeared on Psych Central as Podcast: Are Social Media Friends Real?