Science

Why Social Media Makes People Unhappy–And Simple Ways to Fix It

Why Social Media Makes People Unhappy--And Simple Ways to Fix It


Disrupted sleep, lower life satisfaction and poor self-esteem are just a few of the negative mental health consequences that researchers have linked to social media. Somehow the same platforms that can help people feel more connected and knowledgeable also contribute to loneliness and disinformation. What succeeds and fails, scientists say, is a function of how these platforms are designed. Amanda Baughan, a graduate student specializing in human-computer interaction at the University of Washington, studies how social media triggers what psychologists call dissociation, or a state of reduced self-reflection and narrowed attention. She presented results at the 2022 Association for Computing Machinery Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Baughan spoke with Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas to explain how and why apps need to change to give the people who use them greater power.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

You’ve shown how changing social media cues and presentations could improve well-being, even when people strongly disagree on issues. Can you give an example?

The design of social media can have a lot of power in how people interact with one another and how they feel about their online experiences. For example, we’ve found that social media design can actually help people feel more supportive and kind in moments of online conflict, provided there’s a little bit of a nudge to behave that way. In one study, we designed an intervention that encouraged people who start talking about something contentious in a comment thread to switch to direct messaging. People really liked it. It helped to resolve their conflict and replicated a solution we use in-person: people having a public argument move to a private space to work things out.

You’ve also tackled a different problem coming out of social media usage called the 30-Minute Ick Factor. What is that?

We very quickly lose ourselves on social media. When people encounter a platform where they can infinitely scroll for more information, it can trigger a similar neurocognitive reward system as in anticipating a winning lottery ticket or getting food. It’s a powerful way that these apps are designed to keep us checking and scrolling.

The 30-Minute Ick Factor is when people mean to check their social media briefly but then find that 30 minutes have passed, and when they realize how much time they have spent, they have this sense of disgust…

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