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The Social Media Dilemma

10 mins read

Over the past decade, social media has become far more prominent. Indeed I remember when I was using the family computer for a total of one hour a day.

Around that time, Windows Live Messenger, or MSN as people called it was where it was at. I was a teenager when I discovered internet slang such as LOL and BRB.

And I am sure everyone remembers the phrase ‘you have just sent a nudge’. On the Internet, YouTube was just coming into the mainstream and MySpace and Bebo were the social media platforms people would be using.

The Windows Live Messenger (MSN) application, well known for the nudge feature, was shut down on October 31st 2014. The application was also versatile in that it could allow users to participate in multiplayer games.

Fast forward to 2020. We are more connected than we ever were before, but the days of MSN and MySpace have long passed. We mostly use Facebook and Twitter, and some of us also have other platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and more recently, TikTok.

The technological era has truly progressed. People are using iPads as young as primary school age. Students now use laptops in their lectures. Other people have jobs that involve responsibility for company social media pages.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in more daily usage of our social media networks, and new innovations such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom are taking over from Skype for professional applications.

And according to Bloomberg, Zoom calls are becoming increasingly popular. Netflix and Amazon’s share prices have remained relatively stable.

Meetings are being taken online, and events are being carried out virtually. In the gaming world, Discord has recently become popular, and social media can even be accessed using games consoles.

Popularity of Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. A large jump in Zoom usage seems to correlate with the 23rd March – the date in which the UK imposed its lockdown.

If you were to ask me what the impact of all this was, I would tell you this. Humans are social creatures.

We crave social lives, and we long for connections with others. During periods of social distancing and self-isolation, this could not be even more true than it always has been.

I want to talk about the effect this is having on autistic people and people who have difficulties with social communication. Because it’s a social media dilemma.

As someone who is very quiet in person and faces huge difficulty talking to other people, particularly in large groups, I am incredibly reliant on my social media platforms to make connections and maintain my friendships.

The colorful neurodiversity symbol which has replaced the jigsaw puzzle piece for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Research from Harvard University shows that getting a notification such as a like, comment or a message gives a huge dopamine boost or ‘dopamine high’. For someone who is autistic, this dopamine high may be enhanced.

I love the thought of someone reacting to one of my posts. Establishing connections with people help me to feel less lonely, and isolated. COVID-19 has only escalated this.

But in general, for everyone, social media provides you with a dopamine high. Every like, react, comment, retweet or message is making us feel good, even if it is a negative comment.

To me it shows that someone is actually looking at what you post. And you appreciate that somewhat. However, social media has also presented me with enormous challenges.

Becoming too reliant on something can also be met with drawbacks. As I am so reliant on making and keeping friends, I am also incredibly anxious about losing them to the point where I am constantly asking myself in my head what these people’s opinions are of me.

Facebook notifications, which have been shown to increase dopamine levels.

This is different from people who have a ‘don’t give a damn’ type attitude. They will do their own thing and not care what people think.

Social media really has an impact on my mental health in this way. Autistic people like me want to be appreciated, in a world which benefits neurotypical people.

Now with COVID-19 and self-isolation, I want to really hit home with how social media can affect us.

Referring back to something I said earlier, humans are social creatures. And this pandemic is only proving that further.

Even though autistic people struggle with socialising in one way or another, we are still social beings. Some of us are extremely worried about how we are being perceived by others.

But there’s more to this, too.

I have very specific interests. These differ from other people’s interests particularly at university.

That is why having Clubs and Societies is such a fantastic part of university life. Like-minded people sharing interests can be a great thing.

But as those interests become more and more specific, I’ve found it becomes increasingly difficult to talk about them. As a kid I’d be doing this constantly, going on and on, without really letting other people have a say.

Today I’m the opposite. I want to share my knowledge and interests. Activity on social media is usually dictated by algorithms and any interaction from friends.

Research from the University of Virginia found that adults with autistic spectrum disorder show strengths with using social media. The researchers studied social and emotional patterns in a sample of 108 autistic adults.

The sample reported an increased likelihood of having close friendships when using online platforms, but felt lonelier and more isolated without those platforms.

Studies show that interactions on Facebook lead to decreased loneliness in adults with autism. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Research also found that socially anxious adults using social media have benefited from better engagement, and decreased loneliness. The problem with algorithms is that as less people notice your social activity, you don’t get the same dopamine high.

In other words, I just feel like I am talking to empty space because no one is interacting with my posts. Algorithms have made it harder for people to get good engagement on their pages too.

They’ve taken to Instagram and other platforms with their hobbies. Instagram has become my fitness platform.

I just don’t get the same interaction on Facebook to my fitness posts than I do with Instagram.

To summarise, my social media experience is a dilemma. I rely on it for my connections and engagement with others, but I also struggle with the effects of less interaction to my posts and activities, which has an impact on my mental health.

I feel like I am not as good a friend to people because of the way social media has changed over time. It is a psychological barrier from the outside world, in which any physical affection or activity is completely null.

But the difficulties of in-person communication and interaction make me the person I am.

As a final note, I feel that it is so important to stay connected, both online and in-person. I think that having a balance is the best way to go.

Even just spending some time off of social media could potentially have a big impact. In the COVID-19 pandemic, for some of us this is not possible, and so those social connections become even more important.

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PhD - Environmental Science. Aspiring research scientist. Like to blog things science, and how it affects us.

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