Media Anthropology: Social Media, Global Behavior, and Mental Health

When I was nine years old, my parents gave me my own cell phone to communicate with me when I needed to be picked up from dance rehearsals. I was allowed to text my friends too. I also spent a large amount of time interacting with classmates in middle school on AIM and Yahoo Instant Messenger. Soon everyone around me had Facebook in high school and then, by college, all of my classmates engaged in social media, including Instagram and Snapchat. Most of my initial interactions with my friends involved simply texting or messaging each other in order to start a conversation before calling. As I grew older, I spent more and more time engaging with people online, and most of my social interactions that I had while online began to dictate my happiness.

Media anthropology is the “cross-cultural study of communication through electronic media, radio, television and film, recorded music, the Internet, and print media and links linking linguistic and cultural anthropology” (Miller, 2007, p.188). In the last decade, with the growth of Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, We Chat, Instagram, Reddit and Snapchat, social media usage has increased exponentially, especially among the younger generations. According to Emile Durkheim, people become cohesive and powerful by creating social ties and sharing “thought and action processes” (Durkheim, 1965). Human relations have been characterized by little face-to-face interactions and more social participation in the online world (Antoci et al, 2015). While there is the belief that technology is simply destroying people’s lives and leading to worse mental-health problems and isolation, many positive associations with social media usage include increased interaction and the ability to stay connected to friends and family on forums. One author touches on social media influencers, I will highlight specific behaviors and mental aspects that go hand in hand with social media usage.

In this blog post, happiness, shyness, and loneliness are presented along with reasons for engaging on social media platforms. A brief description of the types of benefits, risks, and ill-effects of engaging online is introduced. By drawing briefly on the most recent literature, I show how social media usage affects overall wellbeing and mental health.

Social Media research Pew Research

Social Media and Happiness

According to Helliwang and Wang (2014), happiness can be best associated with people who are most satisfied with their lives, enjoy doing positive things for others and themselves, and embody a broader sense of life purpose (p.390). The authors show that  happiness increases with more social interactions between friends and family, and even an additional 1.7 hr in the company of friends improves overall well-being (Helliwang et al, 2014). However, in-person connectivity has begun to become more obsolete and people spend more time socializing by chatting or texting online.

Internet activity allows for connectedness and stronger ties to form an online community. Individuals feel a stronger need to remain connected without having to commute to see a friend. Recent findings suggest that a lack of in-person socializing may be having an affect on well-being and happiness for adolescents. Nearly all kids, even at the of ten, have their own cell-phone and teens spend an average of 6.67 hr/day on social media, 4.6 hr/day (Jensen et al, 2019).

Alternatively, people find themselves comparing themselves to others, which can cause sadness and unhappiness. Some studies have shown that happiness can also decrease with social media usage, so it is difficult to say that social media can cause happiness or unhappiness. The rise of group chatrooms, forums, and a section for comments on sites such as Yahoo, Youtube and Facebook has also made room for group communities and social interactions, some positive and negative, which will be explained more in-depth in the following sections.

Social Media and Loneliness

Social Media and Loneliness 

Often, engaging on multiple social media platforms, and chatting with friends online or strangers can become a substitute for in-person interactions, leading to higher levels of loneliness (Nie et al, 2002).  Loneliness has been defined as a “deficit in social skills, having preference for online interactions, and also compulsive internet use” (Peng 2009). Less face-to-face interactions and more texting has evolved as the norm contemporary society. In a 2007 study, “hyperpersonal possibilities” of mobile communications appeared; participants who already defined themselves as lonely individuals preferred to talk on the phone via voice while anxious participants in this study only wanted to text and stated that it is a “superior medium” for contact  (Reid et al, 2007). Overuse of the internet can also be correlated with frequency of depression or avoiding responsibilities including work, chores or school (McKenna & Bargh, 200; Nie et al, 2002).

Loneliness can still exist despite having many social interactions in-person. In 2014, a panel survey with 361 Hong Kong students revealed that feelings of loneliness increased over a period of time regardless of how much time was spent with family and friends (Yao et al, 2014). Interacting with close friends and family does not serve as a substantial alternative for reducing loneliness, even though it could temporarily negate some isolation. This study shows that a “vicious cycle” between loneliness and internet addiction is not necessarily dependent on social media platforms and the internet, but on the individual itself (Yao et al, 2014).

Alternatively, new insights hint at the difficulty in determining the cause and effect of the decline of an individual’s well-being while engaging on social media sites. People may turn to social media because they already feel lonely, or the social media content that someone viewed may have caused them to feel isolated (Yavich et al, 2019).

Social media draws out shyness

Social Media and Shyness 

According to Orr and researchers (2009), shyness is defined by “anxiety reactions (e.g. discomfort, aversion of gaze) and inhibition of normal social behaviors especially when sharing an environment with others.” Recent studies (Orr et al, 2009; Deters, 2012) in the last decade have looked at how individuals who deem themselves as shy make use of internet chatrooms, e-mails and instant messaging. Social media platforms link these shy individuals to larger social structures online (Ridgeway 2006). People have reported having made more satisfying long-lasting relationships through chatrooms and instant messaging. The time spent on cell phone applications could promote interactions between people and encourage one on one communication between people on applications.

Shyness does not restrict individuals from having a plentiful number of online conversations, while those that do not have many friends to engage with online choose to evade face-to-face or voice communication (Madell and Muncer, 2006; Orr et al, 2009) Overall, these findings reveal that shyness may be one of the many reasons for individuals seeking online social media platforms more frequently than extroverted people.

Social media picture of likes and sharing

Social Networks 

In the most recently established articles, social networks have been characterized as a means of sharing content, interacting with family members, friends or coworkers, developing a reputation or advertising a business, and finding community resources (Yavich et al, 2019).  Writing on one’s timeline, clicking like or posting, has become a present-day meaningful mode of communication for many age groups. (Antoci et al, 2018). Many studies have looked at the relationship between well-being and mental health and have acknowledged a direct decline in social interactions between the user and friends and family after extensive internet usage. Social media use is both indirectly and directly associated with  depression, anxiety, or other psychosocial dysfunctions, but further research suggests that the purpose of what the social media is being used for and the personal characteristics of the user need to be considered as well (Reid et al, 2007). Due to a paucity of research on Instagram and Snapchat, this next section focuses on how social media platforms such as Facebook might elevate shy people, but increase loneliness, depression, anxiety and enforce low-productivity and multitasking.  

Facebook and Social Media

Facebook: Shyness, Civility, Loneliness, or Depressed

According to Yavich et al (2019), Facebook is the most dominant of all social networks today, where people connect and maintain ties with current or old friends while accessing  information about each other (Statista 2018). It is referred to by many university students as a “social glue”, allowing students to reinforce their political or religious beliefs and make new friends (Yavich et al, 2019). Researchers also found that students who had a high number of “friends” on Facebook reported to have a higher level of loneliness (Skues et al, 2012), but students who used less social platforms had high scores of loneliness, because they had less social activity in their daily life (Deters & Mehl, 2012).

A study in 2018 was conducted to understand the effect of trust depending on the civility or incivility of the interactions taken place on social media platforms. The participants that engaged or anonymously viewed civil Facebook interactions were more trusting (Antoci et al, 2018). Online trusting behaviors are characterized by mutual respect, more professional and genuine interactions, genuine words, happy emoticons, and the emergence of more rational topics (Antoci et al, 2018; 2016).

On the contrast, incivil behaviors can include “harassing behavior ranging from aggressive commenting in online threads, incensed discussion, rude critiques to outrageous claims, hate speech, and more severe forms of harassment such as purposeful embarrassment even physical threats”(Anderson et al, 2014; Antoci et al, 2016). These harmful behaviors manifest in many different ways in other people’s minds on all forms of media, not just Facebook, and could result in depression, stress, anxiety, self-loathing or other negative behaviors offline (Davila et al, 2012). In a social media study, women in southeast Turkey have gained larger communities by making use of social networks like Facebook, but there have been increasing situations where men will harass them with incivil behaviors (Miller at al, 2021).

In South Italy, divorce has substantially increased due to partners catching their significant other’s lies and infidelity through social media (Miller et al, 2021). Many people who are committed to a relationship prefer to actually close their Facebook accounts. Some Chinese women have even been inspecting their husband’s accounts or phones to see if they are committing adultery.

Other findings suggest that personality traits also affect a person’s desire to go on Facebook, including people who already exhibit anxiety, loneliness, or shyness. People that have social anxieties are reported to use Facebook quite frequently and have fewer friends in real life, while extroverts who use Facebook less than those with social anxieties have more friends offline (Orr et al, 2009) (Yavich et al, 2019). According to researchers at University at Windsor, shy individuals exhibit more favorable attitudes towards Facebook because it allows them to express themselves without the stress of face-to-face communication, and also provides some form of anonymity (Orr et al, 2009). By using the Revised Check and Buss Shyness Scale (20 items rated on a 5-point Likert Scale), shyness was positively correlated with the amount of time spent on Facebook and negatively correlated with the amount of added Facebook friends (Orr et al, 2009).  However, their findings cannot be generalized to other Facebook users who are not college-aged-students, because their sample size contained university students only. It is suggested that their study be replicated with non-university students or a larger sample of students, in order to understand how shyness is correlated with Facebook usage (Orr et al, 2009; Madel et al, 2006).

Social Media and Facebook

Status Updating and Social Snacking on Facebook

In an online study conducted by Deters et al (2012), participants were asked to post more than they usually did. Other participants receiving the control condition didn’t receive any requirements or instructions. The results revealed that updating one’s status constantly with different topics representing relationships, sports, events, politics, popular culture, over seven days, had the most effect on reducing loneliness (Deters et al, 2012;  Preacher & Hayes, 2004).

Participants felt stronger ties and connectedness to their Facebook friends through a phenomenon reinforced by Deters et al (2012) and termed by Gardner, Pickett and Knowles (2005) known as “social snacking.” Social snacking entails looking through old photos or emails, and serves as a symbolic social behavior meant to reduce loneliness and remind one of their existing connections, and also temporarily helps someone to endure their lack of socialization in the real world. While private messages, e-mails, and phone calls were not tracked, updating and writing new statuses incited attention to other users and motivated friends to initiate interaction or reconnect. The idea of social snacking validates how Facebook can both increase or decrease satisfaction with how often someone responds or comments.

Alternatively, in this same study, receiving direct feedback (likes and comments) did not promote the need to create more status updates. Social inclusion was stimulated by the act of liking and commenting. Status updates “draw attention to the user” and can act as a variable in inspiring other viewers and lurkers to comment or “like.” However, this study only looked at the quantity of the status updates and not the quality. The quality of any type of post should be further assessed in the future for any social media platform.


Social Media and Depression  

The relationship between depression and social media is a widely discussed, debated and much enhanced topic. Social media can play a negative role in elevating depression or a positive one by numbing it. The symptoms of depression have been found among people who spend a lot of time on Facebook and partake in activities such as uploading photos and videos, posting statuses and comparing themselves to others (Rosen et al, 2013; ). Additionally, surfing the web aimlessly or partaking in some risky behaviors has been reported to be associated with depression and even loneliness (Krau et al, 2012).

Mental Health

Online Group or Individual Support for Mental Illnesses or Physical Ailments

People who already have mental illnesses or physical ailments have been turning to social media platforms and online forums to seek advice, share their experiences or just receive overall support. With Western medicalization, a particular issue is labeled and generally requires treatment. Peer-to-peer connections have the potential to promote physical and mental well-being (Naslund et al, 2016). Individuals have described the majority of their interactions on these types of forums as helpful, supportive and positive. Overall, online peer support allows for a sense of hope and contributes to overall cohesive and collective group behavior, including group reciprocity, happiness and minimizing loneliness (Naslund et al, 2014).

However, problems can occur with these online groups, such as misdiagnosing someone with a mental disease or suggesting types of treatment or hospitalization that are not necessary. Health problems should not be diagnosed online, and should be read with caution. Frustration, sadness and even aggressive behaviors can occur. Online lurkers who do not participate in online discussions can make individuals feel exposed  and may even create false perceptions of mental illness or physical ailments. (Anderson et al, 2014).

As social information and discussions occur online every second, methodologies for conducting research on interpersonal communications and emotions online has been largely debated. However, the observations of real-world data without any type of interference is a methodological strength and allows researchers to analyze conversations that occur naturally (Naslund et al, 2014). The current literature may be lacking because there is no way to receive any knowledge of the types of individual motivations or intentions to post comments, or reveal health information without crossing ethical lines. In these types of online support groups, future research should explore if individuals feel empowered to post on these forums while considering the types of risks and mutual inclusions or exclusions globally that exist online.

Social Media Activity

Significance in Anthropology

The internet has considerably changed how we communicate with one another or regard each other. (Weiser, 2001). The contradicting results as to whether social media affect one’s emotional or mental state may exist because the past studies have been more broad and less generalized to one specific platform, age group, and demographic. While there has been an abundance of literature on mental health, recent findings suggest that there is a lack of clarity about how social media truly affect individuals globally. There are recent findings that show shyness, loneliness, depression, and happiness increase and also decrease with social media usage. Ultimately, these non-linear associations between technology and mental health are not extreme (Jensen et al, 2019). More research needs to be completed in order to understand the various cultural differences and engagements with social media platforms.

Social Media Platforms


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