When I was a teenager, at around 2003, I rebelled against the mobile phone. I don’t know what it was about it but I just didn’t want one. Without really thinking too much about it then, I believe I foresaw a future of increasing social connections and as a result, imagined each connection becoming weaker. It may have been a bit of that, but it was definitely a bit of relunctance to being able to be contacted 24/7. I liked the ritual-esque process of having to ask my parents to use the house phone, making sure no one was online, and then calling a friend’s house phone. We would have a conversation worthy of the time and the next one would take place at least a day later.

Eventually at the age of 16 I finally relented to the mobile when I realised I would be more easily able to talk to this particular girl in school. The power of girls on my 16 year old mind was the weakness in my armour!

It was a similar story when Facebook was released to the world. Again I refused to join. I foresaw a world of an ever increasing number of weakening relationships. For over a year I point blank ignored Facebook, whilst all my friends raved about it and media around the world predicted its importance. This time I was forced to comply, not by my own failing willpower, but by the university I was attending. They told us we had to use Facebook as our main communication for the design group project.

So again I yeilded.

Then began 8 years of observation and psycho-analysis on the effects of digital social tools. In that time I saw myself fall ill of the phenomenon FOMO: the Fear of Missing Out. I saw my good friends disappear into the background, kept afloat in my mind by simple meaningless chats that mostly consisted of:

Hey. How are you? Yeah not so bad, you? Not bad either. Hanging from last night.. Oh yeah? Yeah was out til like 5am. Lol, shite. Yeah.. Sound well I’ve got to go so chat soon. Safe xx

A conversation like that and the social itch was seemingly scratched enough til the next pointless chat. I saw huge swathes of people live a totally different life online to the personality I thought they were. I saw trends start and end over social media. The whole time I observed myself: I kept a check on the effect it had on my mind and my personality, the effect it had on my mood, my friendships and my family. Finally I gave it up. It took two goes to quit. [Disclaimer: I still use Facebook for Strange Labs, though I do not post on or use my personal profile] This post is about the research I’ve found and experiences I have had. In conclusion it led me to start developing an app to help rebuild meaningful relationships which will be described at the end.

I hope this post provides insight to the effect digitalisation has had on society, from my personal perspective.

Addiction and the Fear of Missing Out

Something that became obvious to me, long after it had begun, was the phenomenom of the Fear of Missing Out. Facebook was certainly addictive to me. It is now undeniable that it is addictive, and possibly even more so than cigarettes claims one of tens of studies undertaken. That addiction manifests in the chemical release triggered by notifications that someone has interacted with you, and what is essentially a love of and desire to be popular and in the know. The worst part of this notification, chemical reward loop, is that you can get notified of all sorts of pointless stuff that is nothing to do with your social group, and end up essentially addicted to things you have no interest in!

I myself was pretty good at “playing” Facebook, I kept my posting active, uploaded links and files that I knew would get the respect, and more importantly likes, of my Facebook friends. This builds and builds. Your stats build and build. It is the same effect that gamification has on productivity, simple reward scenarios which help build a digital persona, which may or may not be who you are in real life and often becomes much more important than your physical self and wellbeing.

And FOMO can be dangerous. There are observable effects of it, such as the distraction effect it has when driving a car for example, or the effects on real life relationships. It made me anxious and agitated if I had been away from Facebook, and had got back to look through the history of my Facebook feed to see what had happened without me. Seeing it unfold without me through real time updates on my feed was even worse! I would often subconsciously sacrifice being in the here and now to be depressed about when and where i wasn’t.

Download the Royal Society for Puplic Health’s report on young mental health and social media here.

The Chilling Effect

The Chilling Effect is the term for how we adjust our behaviour based on what we understand to be true about the internet and an online society. The causes of this are often the knowledge that online everyone can see us: our social media networks and online accounts are subject to a peer-to-peer (and often state) surveillance. Believing this, there is evidence of a phenomenon whereby we change our behaviour, our personalities and our appearance online.

Well when we are online, our offline selves don’t cease to exist. Our online persona’s have their roots in our real minds and bodies. Constantly reprogramming our brains for online surveillance and critique has an affect on our minds when we are not connected. There is a research paper by Bath university written on this, dubbed the Extended Chilling Effect. There are many stories of people sending themselves mad simply through pretending to be so, enabled by the plasticity of our brains, and our adjustment of self in an online world can be reflective of this.

Dunbar Number

If you think about it, it makes sense that there is a limit to the quantity of meaningful relationships we can have. Our brains aren’t expanding at the rate technology is. We cannot hold thousands and thousands of mutually affectionate relationships at one time in our minds. Just like we cannot learn everything in Wikipedia. This limit has been suggested by Dunbar to be 150. That includes all your family, friends, extended family, in-laws, colleagues etc. Basically forget the differentiation between people and you, one hundred and fifty people is the maximum relationships you can hold as a human. Of those relationships, it is suggested roughly 5 will be very strong ones. These 5 may include the ones of your immediate family, your partner or your closest friend. The BBC have written a good article exploring the Dunbar number and social media. Obviously, different people, age groups, cultures etc all have an effect on this and this article is well worth a read.

I however, do find I struggle to maintain good relationships with lots of people. The few close relationships I do have are all people who are geographically close to me, and who I put time into in real meetings, and real conversations with.

Changing Relationships

It is pretty much a consensus now that it is not money, or fame, or acquisitions or even achievements that create life long happiness, but friendships and relationships.

As this article How Friendships Change Over Time says

survey upon survey shows how important people’s friends are to their happiness. And though friendships tend to change as people age, there is some consistency in what people want from them.

And so it might be that I am moving from one phase of friendships to another and the internet is not weakening social connections as much as I think.

It’s Not All Bad…

Social Media does have an important place: in keeping relationships that would have otherwise been broken. The top five regrets from the deathbed includes not staying in contact with friends, so a very weak connection is better than no connection at all.