New research commissioned by Diet Coke suggests that social media are making a significant contribution to the emotional state of people in Britain.
No great insight there, maybe. We Are Flint’s latest report suggests that 78% of over 18s in the UK use Facebook; back in 2015, Instagram claimed 14 million UK users; then there are the huge UK user bases of other platforms such as Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, etc., not to mention all the newer (like Periscope and Facebook Live) or more niche platforms, large and small. Even businessy site LinkedIn claims 23m+ UK users.
All these digital highways and byways confront our mind’s eye with a signpost showing innumerable possible avenues leading to social intercourse. New ways to chat, to comment, to update, to get back in touch. And let’s face it, we’re all children at heart – we all seek acknowledgement, praise and encouragement. Positive feedback from our friends and acquaintances keeps us motivated. Facebook and other social media provide (lots of) us with new and ample opportunities to build our circle of friends, an important well spring of reassurance and encouragement.
Social media is also proving to be a necessary source of confidence for many, given that, according to the study, 23% admit that it takes just 10-25 likes to make us feel valued by our online friends, with 60% also stating that getting likes helps to boost their confidence.
Confidence and the emotional stability that flows from it are basic human needs. Self-esteem is a key driver of that confidence.
Esteem comes quite high up Abraham Maslow‘s famous Hierarchy of Needs theory, published in 1943 as A Theory of Human Motivation.
According to Maslow: “All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. By firmly based self-esteem, we mean that which is soundly based upon real capacity, achievement and respect from others. These needs may be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom.
“Secondly, we have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), recognition, attention, importance or appreciation. These needs have been relatively stressed by Alfred Adler and his followers, and have been relatively neglected by Freud and the psychoanalysts. More and more today however there is appearing widespread appreciation of their central importance”.
Now the Diet Coke study says that “… social media appears to be playing a significant role in the way that we form some friendships in the first place. Over half of Brits (54%) claim to have met up with someone they originally met on social media and 44% say they made a new best friend thanks to their online networks”.
But it also finds that, although Brits have an average of between 100 and 200 social media followers, on average they consider only 3-5 of them as ‘close’ friends offline.
So as the effects of all this ballooning of social interaction continue to be felt, it’s perhaps worth reflecting on whether our definition of friendship has changed. While sheer numbers soar, the balance between friendship and acquaintanceship is tipping markedly towards the latter.
In Games People Play, published in 1964, Eric Berne highlighted the importance of ‘stroking’. He was referring to the psychological theory that adults continue to seek the same kind of physical intimacy with others that they experienced with their mothers.
Not that this craving for stimulus routinely leads to actual physical interactions – rather, the individual “… learns to do with more subtle, even symbolic, forms of handling, until the merest nod of recognition may serve the purpose to some extent, although his original craving for physical contact may remain unabated”. (Perhaps, though, one does see a physical manifestation of this basic need when seeing those who have suffered terrible loss, for instance, being comforted by hugs from sympathisers).
Nods of recognition, in their multifarious forms, are clearly of much more significance to us than is generally acknowledged. A Facebook ‘like’ or other emoji, or a Twitter or Periscope ‘heart‘, can each work as a stroking mechanism, reinforcing our feelings that we are ‘one of the gang’. Like individual children in a vast playground of kids, our comments, holiday snaps, selected memes or news links, our jokes – original or recommended – our music, our family portraits or selfies – all of these, our social media ‘progeny’, compete to be noticed on the ever-moving social media timeline.
(This desire to be seen to be one of the gang is a common personality trait. I confess that when I was a young boy, and the youngest member of a “gang” of four, I frequently felt like an outsider, never quite able to compete with the physical strength and prowess of my older “friends”. I sometimes found solace by losing myself in one of the William books, written by Richmal Crompton).
One problem is that the interest we accrue from the time we invest in social media is unpredictable and of variable value – like most investments, its value can go up or down. Just as likes can help satisfy the hunger for recognition, so the lack of them can make us feel ignored and thereby affect our self-esteem adversely. For all its benefits, social media can have negative consequences. Indeed there is a growing body of evidence that Facebook addiction can be linked to social loneliness, social anxiety or depressive episodes.
For some, a perceived shortfall in acknowledgement – likes, comments, emojis, hearts, etc. – coupled with envy of the lifestyles of others reported in the Facebook newsfeed, can have consequences. “The problem is there are rarely terrible consequences, but rather it sucks the life out of an individual slowly, so clinicians miss it” (source: ‘Facebook Addiction Associated With Social Insecurity‘, Psychiatry Advisor, January 17, 2017).
So maybe we will begin to see a devaluation of the likes ‘currency’, as people start to re-assess the gamble they take with social media. Stepping away from the real into a virtual world of social intercourse can be fun and entertaining; but it also poses risks and the rewards are not always in line with our expectations.
Maybe that was reflected in another of the findings of the Diet Coke survey, commissioned to celebrate the brand’s Get The Gang Back Together campaign: “… despite the continued dominance of social media, what we all really yearn for is quality face to face time with our friends and when asked about their preferred means of communication with friends, 69% opted for catching up in person rather than via social media (11%), group chats (8%), text message (8%) or a phone call (3%)” (source: ‘The truth about social friendships: Brits count just 5% of their social media followers as ‘close’ friends‘, Coca-Cola, January 5th, 2017).
*Statistics are taken from a survey of 2,008 UK adults aged between 18-50, commissioned by Diet Coke and conducted by Morar in April 2017.