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Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The bubble and you

People who use social media increasingly get information not by themselves but from people like themselves

Putting your phone away and paying attention to those talking to you? There’s an app for that. It’s called RESPECT." This is one of those memes that gets passed around—mainly via the same mobile phone that you can’t put away.

Coupled with social media, the thin wedge of glass and metal in your hand has made your world about you—your thoughts, your emotions, your friends, your photos, your life—and others like you. We know that people of the same views flock together online, give voice to their deepest prejudice, feed off each other’s prejudices and spread these emotions around. We also know that social media and the mobile phone tend to accentuate the negative and diminish the positive.

That message was drilled into me this week at my daughter’s new school by a counsellor, who, while acknowledging that screens (computers, iPads, mobile phones) provided children with new learning and skills, cautioned that screen time must be limited.

So, what do scientists say about the effect of social media on our lives?

I found the most concise explanation in a 2015 book, The Psychology of Desire. In one chapter, psychologists Diana Tamir and Adrian Ward argue that our new behaviour is an outsize, simplistic manifestation of very old tribal instincts. “Our insatiable desire to connect with new media may be a product of social minds gone astray," write Tamir and Ward. “Our social minds, from our most basic to our most advanced neurocognitive processes, encourage us to seek out social connection and enable us to succeed in achieving our social goals. New media offer simple solutions to complex social needs."

In December 2015, one of the largest empirical analysis of online news-seeking behaviour compared news found on search engines and social media and found that those who get their news from social media are at higher risk of living in “information bubbles".

The people in these “bubbles" collect information from a narrower range of sources on social media than those who do from search engines, said the study—which analysed more than 100 million Web clicks and 1.3 billion social-media posts—published in PeerJ Computer Science, an open-access journal. In other words, people who use social media increasingly get information not by themselves but from people like themselves.

Given the avalanche of information arriving on our screens 24/7/365, it is not surprising that such bubbles have become coping mechanisms. But this growing bubble-isation of news and information—garnered from tweets, Facebook posts and WhatsApp forwards—makes for a limited, often distorted, view of an increasingly complex world.

In August 2015, a team of US researchers also warned that smartphones—the leading purveyors of social media—could be particularly harmful for depressed people, who, by turning to their phones for relief, may only be making things worse. In a paper published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, the researchers argued that a mobile phone offered fleeting respite from “negative emotions" and could descend into a situation they called PUMP, or problematic use of mobile phones.

Mobile phones can simulate human interaction but their ability to stimulate such communication is limited and poor replacement for face-to-face conversation. Social media create a reality that is often, well, not real, and the PUMP rises when we try to “de-stress" by staying online.

The PUMP is particularly true for adolescents who love their smartphones so much that they believe life will pass them by if they switch off. A 2015 study in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence found that only 17% of adolescent smartphone owners switched off their devices or silenced them at night, compared to 47% of non-smartphone-owning teenagers who did. Those who did use social media at night tended to sleep poorly and display symptoms of depression.

It might appear that we are getting a reasonable idea of the effects of social media and the mobile phone. Indeed, psychologists and neuroscientists—who watch our brain waves as we watch social media—find WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms mines of information for their research. But they emphasize that neuroscience research into social media use is in its early stages.

A November 2015 review paper in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences emphasizes that with more people joining social media and spending more time than ever on them, there is much to learn. How you use social media could be a predictor of your personality and analyses of offline and online behaviour could provide clues to how your brain works. For instance, people devote a third of “offline", or face-to-face, conversations to talking about themselves; online, 80% of their posts are about themselves and they tend to be far less polite that they would be in person.

As they probe the neurological roots of our social media and mobile phone saturated lives, scientists will indeed have lots of new questions to ask, especially important as more children go online. I suspect the answers they get might not be quite as new.

Samar Halarnkar is editor of Indiaspend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism, non-profit organization. He also writes the column Our Daily Bread in Mint Lounge.

Comments are welcome at frontiermail@livemint.com. To read Samar Halarnkar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/frontiermail

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