The Psychology of Social Media

Social media is a cornerstone of modern life, shaping how people interact, both with friends and complete strangers, access information and share ideas. A huge number of us engage with social media. In 2018 the Pew Research Center conducted a study looking to found out just how many of us are on social media. They found that 88% of people between the ages of 18 to 29-years-olds, 78% of 30- to 49-year-olds and 64% of 50- to 64-year-olds reported using some kind of social media on a frequent basis.

With so many of us doing it, just why do we get so involved in social media?

Whilst we can’t say exactly why everyone posts on social media, recent research has highlighted some theories that might give us a broader understanding of peoples’ motivations for engaging with social media. By adapting the work of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s, who developed a “hierarchy of human needs” to help understand human motivations, they attempted to tap in to the reasons why people post and consume updates on social media. Here is what they came up with.

  1. Physiological needs: People sometimes post to benefit the health or well-being of their friends and family.
  2. Safety: Physical, mental, and financial security are important for people when they choose to post some material on their social media.
  3. Love/belonging: Users generally want to post to feel some kind of social acceptance from a group or a particular individual.
  4. Esteem: People want to quell the rewards-oriented parts of their brains, which helps explain why people post “me-centric” content regularly.
  5. Self-actualization: As the most important facet of the human needs hierarchy, this aspect of social media posting manifests when people share their successes – getting a new job, completing an arduous project, or graduating from school, to name a few examples.

In many ways engaging with social media can have positive benefits on our mental health. Researchers have found that young people using social media, particularly during the transition to adulthood, are presented with increased opportunities for friendship and happiness, as social media allows them to create stronger bonds with friends because of the easy access to friends’ information and interests. They also found that these interactions give users an opportunity for greater independence and autonomy, which in turn increases their critical thinking and decision-making skills.

Painted Brain, an organisation which combats mental health issues, proposed a number of ways in which social media can have a beneficial impact on the mental health of users, such as:

  1. Social integration with similar interest groups.
  2. Healthy and body-positive lifestyle motivations.
  3. The availability of support groups.
  4. Maintaining and building new relationships.
  5. An introduction into new modes of thinking.

However, as many of us are aware, experiences on social media are not always positive ones. And whilst the above highlights the many positive ways that social media can influence mental health, researchers have also highlighted plenty of ways in which social media can be detrimental to the mental health of its users; particularly its younger audiences.

It has been noted that social media opens the door to cyberbullying, trolls, toxic comparisons, sleep deprivation, and less frequent face-to-face interactions. And in a culture that often presents a feeling of the importance of staying online all the time, these issues can become hard to step away from, leading to anxiety and other mental health issues. Indeed, research has shown that peoples’ mental health can suffer the more time they spend on Facebook, causing people to feel worse about their own positions when they compared their profiles with others.

It is important then, in this social media age, to be aware of the ways in which we engage with social media and the impacts it has on us and those around us, in order for us to make the most of this powerful modern tool and to navigate its potential pitfalls.


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