Smartphone Apps

Image credit: Jason Howie

Off the top of my head, I can think of several ways in which social media has led to positive outcomes. It helps to quickly spread new Amber alerts when a child goes missing, it helps people easily stay in touch with their loved ones and it even helped one woman find her biological mother.

For all the positives, there are some pretty serious negatives as well. Social media has led to the rise of cyber bullying, has been shown to cause depression in users as well as leading to addictive behaviours.

As someone who works in this space, I try to stay on top of trends involving social media and how people engage with it. Lately, it seems like there are more stories related to people becoming hurt, injured and isolated than there are of social media being useful. I can’t help but wonder if we’ve reached a point in the social space where the negatives outweigh the positives.

Cyber Bullying

There have always been bullies, but with the explosion of smartphones and social media, it’s easier than ever for the bullying to go beyond school hours. When I was making my way through the school system, there were, of course, school yard bullies. Back then, you’d see kids picked on during the lunch hour and recess but there would be some level of relief at home in the evenings. Today, the constant connections provided by social media and smartphone apps means that while kids can easily be reached by their friends, they can also be easily reached by their tormentors.

According to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, 7% of adult Internet users in Canada, age 18 years and older, self-reported having been a victim of cyber-bullying at some point in their life with threatening or aggressive emails and instant messages reported by 73% of the victims. Further, a 2008 study showed that boys were more likely to experience direct forms of bullying while girls experienced more indirect forms including cyber bullying.

Anonymous social app Yik Yak recently turned off access to US middle and high school students because it was being used as a tool for bullying. The premise of the app is a hyper local version of Twitter, one to be used by college students to share what is happening on campus. Similar to Whisper and Secret, users of the app do not have to identify themselves when posting.

Once Yik Yak made it’s way into the hands of teenagers, chaos ensued. Will Haskell, a senior in a high school in Connecticut, wrote in New York magazine about how the app facilitated the spreading of hateful messages like wildfire throughout his school. Haskell’s school wasn’t the only one affected. Across the US, there were bomb threats and other threats of violence.  The people behind Yik Yak’s quick action helped stem the havoc from spreading., another social networking site with anonymous posting, has been linked to a handful of teen suicides. Ask is set up in a question and answer format and is very popular with teenagers. Unlike other social networks, Ask does not allow users to change their privacy settings; even if a user is blocked, they are still able to see the profile and activity of the person who blocked them. Bullying is a terrible experience to go through at any age, but to be targeted relentlessly and without being able to identify your tormentor must be an excruciating burden.

Clearly, bullying pre-dates social media but without the ease of use that smartphones and social media allow, bullying today is a far greater menace than it ever was before. Between apps and websites, kids can be bullied from the time they wake up (and first look at their phone) until the time they go to bed.

I don’t know what the answer is – more moderation on social networking sites? More rigid age restrictions to prevent teens from signing up for such sites and services? Greater parent and teacher involvement?

What I do know is how relieved I am to have grown up in a time without social media. When I got home from school, I did my homework, had dinner with my family and watched TV. I was able to leave the day’s events at school and teen suicide wasn’t nearly in the news then as it is now.

Social Media and Depression

There have been several stories lately questioning whether social media is impacting our mental health. This blog post on Psychology Today has a great explanation of the issue:

Perhaps the primary reason we feel sad, jealous, or dissatisfied after using Facebook is that we are constantly making social comparisons based on incomplete—or inaccurate—information. One study found that the more time users spend on Facebook each week, the more likely they are to think that others were happier and having better lives than they themselves .

The problem in comparing our lives to others based on what they post on social networks is that people often post misinformation. People will post status updates and pictures showing them enjoying a night out on the town. But they won’t post about how they couldn’t really afford that night out on the town.

We compare ourselves to everyone’s upbeat stories and completely forget that there’s a strong possibility that not everyone is as super happy in their life as their Facebook timeline appears to illustrate. As a result, the more time that is spent on social media, the more comparisons are made and the worse people feel about themselves.

It’s easy to get caught up in the Facebook-timeline comparison. But it’s also easy to tackle the problem:

  1. Spend less time on Facebook – or social media in general
  2. If there are certain people whose posts tend to bother you, change your settings so that you see less of what they share
  3. The next time you find yourself comparing yourself to something on social media, step back and force yourself to see beyond the status.

Addictive Behaviours

We’ve all done it; walking down the street, we reach into our pocket or purse and pull out our phone. We press a button to turn the screen on and check for any new notifications. Even if there isn’t a notification, we’ll unlock the screen and check for new texts, open up a new email message or check our Facebook timeline. Surely there’s something new going on we should know about.

Part of my commute involves walking through Toronto’s very busy Union station to get to and from the office – often during rush hour. I am always amazed to see the number of people walking aimlessly through the crowds with their phone held up to their face and their eyes glued to the screen. I’ve seen countless instances of people being knocked over or tripped because they weren’t paying attention to where they were walking. The only thing that surprises me is that there haven’t been more instances of being falling onto the subway or train tracks because they were too distracted to notice their surroundings.

A “mobile addict” is a user that launches apps more than 60 times a day, according to mobile analytics firm Flurry, six times more than the average user. I think mobile addiction should also encompass things like not being able to be stop looking at your phone and hearing phantom vibrations from the phone when there aren’t any.

I, like many of my friends, have my phone with me in the bedroom when I go to sleep. I sometimes use it as an alarm clock, but more often than not, it’s used as a source of distraction upon waking up in the morning. I’m trying to be more mindful of my phone activity. During the work day, I keep it on silent so as not to expect any vibration and keep it faced down to avoid being distracted by the flashing light notifying me of new activity. When out at dinner, I try to keep my phone on silent and out of sight – I hope that those around me do the same. Some creative folks have found an interesting way to combat the phone at the dinner table issue: whoever reaches for their phone first picks up the tab.

Phone addiction is a pretty serious issue. For most people, it amounts to lost productivity while we’re at work or slowing us down while out running errands. It can have serious ramifications too as can be seen in instances of people being hurt and killed because they weren’t paying attention to their surroundings.

The most recent example that comes to mind is the case of 32-year-old Courtney Sanford, who passed away after the car she was driving collided head-on with a truck. Just before the collision, Sanford had posted to her Facebook timeline letting her friends know that the Pharrell Williams song, “Happy” made her happy. Sanford’s case is an extreme example; but it certainly illustrates the dangers of distracted driving.

While it’s a bit on the sentimental side, the video “Look Up” does an effective job of showing the isolation and loneliness that can come with our social media and phone addictions. As for me, I’ve started to leave my phone in my living room and using my traditional alarm clock more regularly. Before bed, I like to read but I’m doing that more on my Kindle (which does not have internet access or apps on it). I’d be lying if I said it was easy to stop looking at my phone. But, I’m trying.

All of this to ask – is social media more harmful than useful? Is our addiction to our phones a phase that’ll pass like disco music and bell bottoms in the ’70s? I’m fascinated by the psychology involved with the addiction issues and will continue to do research on it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I hear my phone vibrating.