How does internet use affect our happiness?

Does our voluminous use of the internet and social media have an impact upon our health and wellbeing, and ultimately, our happiness? I spoke with Anna Akbari, PhD about how and why our online behaviour can impact our happiness levels. 

1. Why are our virtual profiles (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, dating profiles) so important to us? 

I often say our 2D selves outrank our 3D selves in the age of the internet. In other words, we privilege the virtual over the embodied. Which means our digital bodies and profiles often take precedence over our physical bodies.

Our physical bodies can only be seen by a small, finite group of people at any given moment, and that image is fleeting. But our virtual bodies — which are promoted and represented on our virtual profiles — can reach an infinite number of people, on multiple platforms, indefinitely, and communicate on our behalf even in our physical absence. 

Engagement by others with our virtual profiles also connects with the pleasure center in our brain. And since most of these platforms are designed to be affirming, “likes,” retweets and swiping “yes” make our brain’s pleasure center light up in the same way a drug does. It is actually addicting.

And so, we keep coming back for more affirmation. The validation is also carried out publicly, making it that much more rewarding. 

2. What percentage of virtual profiles do you think are a true reflection of their owners? Is this important?

Zero. Not because everyone is trying to deceive, but because “true” implies “whole,” and virtual profiles can never be whole. They are merely a slice of our lives and identities. A snapshot of one facet of us. Most people over-accentuate the good, but some undersell themselves. We are always cultivating a brand or honing a narrative on these profiles. It is simply impossible to fully reflect the breadth and depth of who you are in these spaces. 

That is not to say that you should therefore abandon them. Rather, you should approach each profile and platform by first examining what your objective is on that site — is it a new job? Staying connected with old friends? Finding a life partner? Promoting a product? — and then craft your identity accordingly. It’s possible and likely that all of those profiles of one person will be wildly different across multiple platforms, and yet can still be “accurate,” if incomplete. 

4. Do we compare ourselves to others more in an online environment than in the real world? Why?

Comparisons happen everywhere humans exist. There is no exception to this, be it high school, prison, an office, a psych ward, a senior center — we never stop comparing ourselves. And it isn’t because we’re all mean and nasty.

We compare in an attempt to know and understand to whom and how we should communicate and connect. We give off not only verbal clues, but more often, visual clues about what official and unofficial groups we belong to, how we might behave in any given situation, our beliefs and lifestyle, and where others might fit into our world. These clues are not just catty or reductive. They are a survival mechanism.

However, this sort of stereotyping can have significant repercussions for both specific people and entire groups, so while we can never truly eliminate it from our psyches, we can make concerted efforts to keep digging for more clues beyond the initial first impression, in an effort to form a more complete profile of an individual.

In a virtual environment, we are wont to compare at a higher rate than in the real world, in part because we have unfettered access to another “person” (via their profile), without the social constraints associated with in-person staring (just imagine how socially awkward it would be if you openly scrutinized a person in the real world the way you do their virtual profiles?). Social etiquette and practical logistics keep comparisons at least somewhat in check in person.

But from the privacy of our own phones and computers, those constraints mostly fall to the wayside, and we are left primarily with our own judgement and willpower to guide us — and since comparison is so socially powerful and seductive, it can be hard to resist, despite its unhealthy and often self-destructive nature. 

5. In what ways can social media improve an individual’s sense of self-esteem. Can social media have a negative effect on self-worth too?

The incessant comparison mentioned above erodes our self-worth and makes us question areas of our lives we perhaps previously felt content with. “Facebook facelifts” are a real thing, and with the rise of Instagram, everyone feels pressure to look like a model all the time.  Vanity and narcissism are fueled by these obsessive analyses and comparisons. 

But there is a positive side. A sense of support in times of need, and validation for one’s life choices can also accompany social media use. A person dealing with grief or illness, someone longing to share a major milestone or triumph, or merely celebrating a birthday -- these are all instances where the individual would likely not experience such a large outpouring of support or validation in their real life, and certainly not one marked so publicly. 

6. Do we need to actively monitor and change the way we approach our virtual profiles, to safeguard our happiness and wellbeing? How?

As with anything, moderation is key and boundaries must exist. The challenge with our virtual profiles is there’s no regulatory body kicking you off Facebook or Instagram after X amount of time per day. Nor is someone limiting your ability to repeatedly virtually stalk your ex’s profiles. All of which can be self-destructive if left unchecked.

So to take advantage of the positive aspects and possibilities of virtual profiles, without falling victim to the pitfalls, one must impose rules and boundaries — something far more easily said than done. Perhaps you limit yourself to only checking social media once or twice a day (as opposed to every hour). Turn off all mobile notifications for “likes” and instead keep them on only for direct messages (you can examine the likes when you voluntarily return to the platform - no action is required there).

Bottomline: You need to control your engagement with the platforms, not fall victim to their clever, deliberate attempts to suck you in repeatedly, putting you into a constant state of virtual FOMO (fear of missing out). 

The same goes for our profiles themselves. Be mindful of how you are self presenting in the virtual space — that image matters — but just like staring in the mirror all day is unhealthy, so too is obsessively updating and pruning your profiles.

Be deliberate in your construction of it and establish a regular maintenance routine — just as you would with your physical body — and in between, just let it be and commit to actual living, rather than obsessing over your profile. (Living entirely via your profile does not an interesting or happy person make.) It’s not either/or, but you must take responsibility and construct the balance for yourself. Virtual profiles and the platforms that host them must be approached like a drug: seductive, fun, powerful and dangerous. Use them responsibly. 

7. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to ensure happiness and wellbeing while using the internet?

The internet can be an ugly, mean, misleading place. It’s like the real world, only more intensified. And when anonymous, individuals feel more emboldened, like they have a license to unleash all the things that are otherwise socially unacceptable to say or do. If you are a public figure or someone who is releasing content or creativity into the public sphere, you must develop a thick skin and be selective about what you pay attention to in relation to what you are putting out there.

Everyone is not an expert and not everyone’s opinion matters. The responsibility is on you to put on blinders where necessary and focus on the positive. You’ll get the critiques and feedback you need from the people who matter — you need not rely on anonymous trolls for that. 

And embrace an “absence makes the heart grow fonder” mindset when it comes to the internet and technology. Set aside specific times to unplug each day and week. I recommend turning off your phone completely while you sleep (get a real alarm clock if necessary).

Eliminating that temptation to check social media or email in the middle of the night will allow your brain to rest and recover. And regular unplugging creates more opportunities for being present with loved ones or with a project you’re working on. It’s difficult to reach a flow state (that state of operating in which you are fully present and committed to the activity at hand, and which creates the most satisfying state of happiness) if we are constantly distracted. And the internet can be one giant distraction if left unchecked and unregulated in our use of it. 

Set boundaries. Put on blinders when necessary. Be deliberate and mindful in what you share. Unplug regularly. This is your formula for online happiness and general wellbeing.  

Anna Akbari, PhD is a sociologist, entrepreneur, writer. She is a former professor in the department of Media, Culture, Communication at New York University and at Parsons School of Design. The research referenced above by Anna can be located here

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