If you follow my work, then you know that, although I’m completely addicted to my cell phone and to Facebook (there, I said it), I’m extremely concerned about modern technologies such as social media and the effects that such technologies are having on our world.
As an evolutionary psychologist, or as someone who looks at questions of human behavior in terms of principles of evolution, I’m particularly concerned about what we call evolutionary mismatch as it relates to social media. Evolutionary mismatch exists when something in the modern environment of an organism is mismatched from the ancestral conditions that surrounded the evolution of that organism.
In so many ways, social media platforms, such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook, are mismatched from the kinds of communication platforms that existed for the lion’s share of human evolutionary history. For more than 99% of our evolutionary history, face-to-face communication with individuals whom you knew well was pretty much it. Social media has changed all that—and, as you’ll see below, not necessarily for the better.
Using this evolutionary mismatch framework, the list below focuses on adverse consequences of cellphone technology and social media in our modern worlds.
10 Ways That Life Is Now Worse Because of Social Media
People can be nasty behind screens. When our identities are downplayed or hidden, there is less motivation to be kind to others. And all the research in the field of social psychology on this point is clear: When people are deindividuated, they are way more likely to be nasty to others (see Zimbardo, 2007). Modern-day social media includes more deindividuated communication than has ever existed in the history of the human species.
Social media creates unhealthy social echo chambers. The westernized world is more polarized than ever these days. This is not just lip service—solid research on political polarization has shown that this is truly the case. Things are getting more polarized with time (see Motyl, 2018). Social media fuels this. If you identify as liberal, you likely belong to a broad array of liberal-focused Facebook groups that provide extraordinary levels of social validation for your beliefs. And if you consider yourself conservative, you likely belong to a host of social media groups that validate and amplify your beliefs. Social media has the capacity to create large-scale echo chambers, adding, unwittingly, to the growing political polarization that is tearing our world apart as I type.
Social media is not for the impulsive at heart. Think about all the impulsive tweets or social media posts that have led people to get into all kinds of hot water. In 2018, Rosanne Barr put out a highly questionable (and impulsive) middle-of-the-night tweet that got her into such hot water that her TV series got canceled. And if you follow the news, you know that this is not an isolated incident. Indeed, these days people are regularly getting into hot water—at work, with family, with friends—as a result of impulsive social media behavior. Under ancestral conditions, people were not able to broadcast any thought they had at any time to the entire world. Things on this front have changed. And not necessarily for the better.
Infidelity rates have increased due to social media. While cellphones may help us communicate and share more regularly with our romantic partners, and, thus, may have some relationship benefits, current research shows that social media is playing a huge role in increasing the prevalence of infidelity, which is made increasingly easier and more tempting than ever thanks to social media. For an eye-opening expose of this issue, check out this report put out by the National Marriage Project (summarized in this article in The National Review by the study authors Betsy VanDenBerghe, Jeffrey P. Dew, and W. Bradford Wilcox). From an evolutionary perspective, infidelity is a major threat to the welfare of any intimate relationship (see Guitar et al., 2016). And social media platforms and cell-phone technology have increased this threat to relationships everywhere—significantly.
Social media makes bullying easier. The literature on how social media has affected bullying is staggering. In a recent study of this issue conducted by the Pew Research Center, a large majority of U.S. teens have reported that they have, at some point or another, been the victims of cyberbullying. Given the ease with which people can put thoughts and ideas out there using social media, putting this technology in the hands of teenagers seems, when you think about it, concerning at the very least. Unfortunately, cyberbullying often leads to issues of emotional and mental health and has, in multiple cases, played a substantial role in suicides (such as the case of 13-year-old Ryan Halligan of Essex Junction. VT, who was repeatedly and incessantly sent homophobic messages by other teens via social media).
Social media creates permanent records—of just about everything. Under ancestral conditions, you could learn from your mistakes and simply move on. These days, mistakes are often recorded. In fact, just about everything seems to be recorded these days—and then blasted out on social media. When a fight breaks out in a school these days, witnesses famously bust out their phones and start streaming the action instead of helping out. And these videos then become permanent records of ugly situations that would be hard enough to forget and move past in the first place. Modern technologies give new meaning to the phrase “there is no escaping your past.”
Cellphones are truly addicting. Think about the number of psychological reinforcers found on social media. People can make social connections. They can corm romantic or even sexual relationships. They can receive excessive and instant praise and validation for all sorts of things. And more. It’s no wonder that research on the topic of cellphone addiction essentially shows that we’re pretty much all crackheads when it comes to our cellphones and social media (see Shoukat, 2019).
The natural world is suddenly less interesting than the virtual world is. When our kids were younger, my wife and I would try to take them out hiking with some regularity. They weren’t always into it. Kids aren’t as into nature these days as they used to be, and for understandable reasons. The virtual worlds found on cellphones and on other devices is simply dazzling in terms of reinforcing stimuli. And this is too bad because all the research on nature experiences suggests that being in nature is a foundational and necessary part of the human experience (see Wilson, 1984).
Social estrangements are made too easy on social media. Recent research from our lab has found that social estrangements, which exist when people define someone else as persona non grata (or “dead to them”), wreak havoc on people’s emotional and social worlds (see Geher et al., 2019). Simply, the more estrangements someone reports having, the more social and emotional difficulties that person is likely to encounter. Social media seems to be a breeding ground for social estrangements. All platforms have various ways to “hide,” “unfriend,” “unfollow,” and “block” others. Interestingly, these features are regularly used by mature adults, as well as teens. Just as social media makes all kinds of social interactions more accessible, the cutoff is now a more accessible option than has ever been the case. On one hand, it’s probably good to cut toxic people out of one’s life. But on the other hand, social media is likely increasing the degree to which people are exercising this option, perhaps leading people to, on average, have more estrangements than would have been the case years ago.
People can deceive in the domain of mating like never before. Social media has had ubiquitous effects in the realm of mating. And in this realm, where self-presentation is foundational, deception and exaggeration are more possible than has ever been the case. Under ancestral conditions, people met potential mates in-person, seeing them as they actually are and listening to spontaneous and largely unprepared introductions. These days, you can find the best photo of yourself that has ever been taken. And then use some filter from Snapchat to make yourself look even better. You can write your introduction for your dating profile over a number of days, editing it carefully and asking for input from friends. And, well heck, you can downright lie about yourself to make yourself appear as better than you actually are (and yes, this has been known to happen!). While self-enhancing self-presentation has probably always been an issue in the mating domain for humans, modern-day social media and related technologies bring the ability to deceive in a mating context to an entirely new level.
Bottom line: While social media technologies have led to all kinds of positive outcomes, such as families being reunited or friends coming together to build prosocial organizations across geographical boundaries, when it comes to the effects on our modern worlds, social media has a dark side—a very dark side. In short, social media has the capacity to bring out the worst in humans, such as bullying, betrayal, hate, and estrangement. And more.
When it comes to technological evolution, there seems to be only one direction. There truly is no stopping “progress.” Hopefully, as we move forward into this new world, people take the time to understand our evolved nature and, along the way, develop methods to ameliorate the adverse effects of social media on the human experience.
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