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  • Writer's picturePam King Sams

University of Cambridge ThinkLab Studies how social media changes our lives.

When you pull out your phone to take a photo, are you planning to share it on social media? Why is it so important that people - most of whom you’ve never met - see the minutiae of your daily life?

“I want people to think about how weird it is that we’re posting pictures of our experiences just for the ‘likes’ and the ‘shares’ – and then getting disappointed if we don’t get enough,” says Tyler Shores, Manager of Cambridge’s ThinkLab Programme.

Researchers across Cambridge are analysing the impact of social media use on mental health, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a complex online world of digital distractions, information silos and binary reactions, what's the best way to avoid 'digital un-wellbeing'?

Tyler Shores is interested in the role digital technology plays in our everyday lives. He used to work at Google analysing online user behaviour; now he’s turned to academia and is researching digital distractions. He says he’s surprised how little most people know about how social media works and how it’s influencing them.

“The fact is that when we use social media we’re being tracked and we’re being manipulated. I want us to think about how we quantify our experience in a way that isn’t really up to us – it’s based on algorithms and other people,” he says. "We can’t base our self-worth on something that’s largely out of our control."

Shores says that Instagram has experimented with hiding its ‘like’ button because users were obsessing over the number of likes their posts received – some to the point of being suicidal if they didn’t get enough. “There’s such a binary logic to social media. But not everything in life is clearly yes or clearly no – like or don’t like, share or don’t share. I worry that we’re losing sight of being OK with ambiguity,” he says.

The recent US elections highlight his point. “I had more social media arguments with people I was ideologically aligned with than anyone else,” he says. “A lot of time if you’re not totally on my side, you’re part of the problem. This isn’t necessarily a new thing, but I feel like it has ratcheted up in terms of how often we do this now.”

Like many others, Shores also used social media in another way during the US election. “I probably checked the news a thousand times,” he says. “But how often is news actually new when you check it? We’re constantly looking for novel and interesting things. That isn’t always bad, but I want us to be aware of how much time we’re spending on it. How much time do we really need to be doing it?”

It wasn’t too long ago that news came just twice a day, in the morning and evening papers and bulletins. Our current 24-hour news cycle is just one example of our growing information consumption, which Shores says is contributing to a hidden epidemic of ‘digital un-wellbeing’.

“We’re spending so much time on screens now - everyone is struggling,” he says. “The pandemic has meant we can’t interact with people normally; we’re beholden to social media because it’s our lifeline to the rest of the world right now.”

Dr Amy Orben, a Fellow at Emmanuel College and Visiting Research Fellow at Cambridge's MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, has spent her academic career looking at the effect of digital technologies on adolescent mental health - a topic that has received heightened interest since the start of the pandemic. She says the question of whether social media is having a positive or negative impact is not straightforward.

“Social media gives us a different perspective on where we fit in the world,” says Orben. “I think it increases the pressure on young people: they’re not just comparing themselves with peers in their school or their environment, but almost worldwide. But on the positive side it allows them to connect with others, and teens really care about their social environment.”

Adolescence - between the ages of 10 and 24 - is a time when people become more attuned to what others think about them, and their perspective broadens significantly. Orben wants to know whether some people are more affected by social media than others at this age. She’s planning a new study, in collaboration with Professor Sarah Jayne Blakemore in the Department of Psychology and other colleagues at the University of Cambridge, to look at social media use and mental health in adolescents during COVID-19.

“Social media is inherently complex, but trying to set guidelines for ‘consumption’ the same way we do for alcohol or food – as policy makers have tried and failed to do - is a massive oversimplification,” says Orben.

Everybody uses social media differently, and it affects our lives in such a diversity of ways, that setting a recommended daily screen time is far from simple.

“If we really want to understand the effect social media is having on our lives, we need to move away from just thinking about the time spent on it, to how that time is used."

Orben adds: “You could use it for twenty minutes to keep in touch with family abroad, or twenty minutes to look at self-harm images on Instagram, for example. The relationship with mental health is really complicated.”

She has found that adolescents who use more social media score lower on mental health questionnaires – but it’s not clear whether social media makes them feel worse, or whether they turn to social media more when they feel worse. And of course, social media isn’t the only thing affecting how adolescents feel.

“There are other things like sleep, parenting, and environment that all affect wellbeing. I don’t think we have the evidence yet to say we should invest lots of money into decreasing social media use, and not invest in other things like youth clubs or better mental health care for adolescents,” she says.

Social media has been blamed for teen mental health problems, but has also provided a lifeline for millions during the pandemic.

It’s how young people organise mass climate change protests, but also how anti-vaxxers spread dangerous misinformation.

With a huge diversity of uses, and its effects still not fully understood, what’s the best approach to take? Shores says simply becoming more aware of our own social media habits is a good first step. And just because there’s no ‘maybe’ button, it doesn’t mean everything is black and white.

Tyler’s Top Tips for Healthy Social Media Use

Make time for screen-free time Try to actively create time in your schedule when you are not on any screens or social media, eg. while taking a walk. Creating some quiet time can be a great brain break.

Try out a new digital habit or routine Speaking of quiet time, I personally block off mornings as screen-free/social media-free thinking time. The thing about habits is that starting small can lead to big changes: try ten minutes a day, then work your way up from there! Here’s a helpful list of habit apps.

Sometimes, slower is better Emotions and moods can be contagious on social media. When you’re engaging with emotional or contentious content, take a minute (or two, or three) to move from your immediate reaction, to thinking before you reply or share.

Out of sight, out of mind Our phones are excellent distraction machines - when you’re working or need to focus, try to get into the habit of keeping your phone in another room with your notifications off.

Make your bedroom a phone-free area Sleep is one of the most important aspects of our wellbeing; I also strongly recommend reducing screen and social media time before bed.


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