In this piece I will discuss how ‘likes’ can trigger feelings of pleasure with it’s addictive properties, leaving the user wanting to go back for more and how the user may feel when ‘likes’ are not obtained. I will also discuss how through the abundance of ‘likes’ some users have over one another, mainly it’s impact on young users who use these social media interactions to self-reflect on themselves and the issues that can come with that using the Social Comparison theory. Admittedly, it has been a difficult task to argue in the social media’s favor, but there are some solutions that can hopefully be applied; that may allow teenagers to see that there is a way of viewing ‘likes’ in a healthier way and using their likes as a way of creative encouragement.
What is the ‘like’ button?
The like button was created in 2007 by a Facebook employee, Justin Rosenstein. In Facebook’s infancy, users’ engagements were tracked by commenting on posts, Rosenstein created the ‘like’ button which allowed users to signify approval without responding. While there is no doubt that the ‘like’ button has been enormously positive for small and large businesses, there is an increasing concern that the ‘like’ button is having an impact on a personal level.
Almost 45% of teenagers in an American study of 750 shows that 13-17 years old, reported the 97% of them are online constantly (MayoClinic, 2019). In addition, a further study of approximately 6,000 students between the ages of 12-17 showed that over-exposure to Social Networking Sites were at risk of developing a mental health illness (MayoClinic, 2019). While it may be unreasonable to suggest that social media is the primary cause of depression and anxiety in teenagers, there has been a vast amount of research done on the impacts it does have. Data taken from studies that have been conducted around this issue has suggested that social media and ‘likes’ (or absence of) has left many of its young users feeling worthless or expressed feelings of low self-esteem.
Why are ‘likes’ not making me like myself?
McSweeney (2017) points out that many neuroscientists are comparing the effects of a ‘like’ on social media with the same chemical reactions that occur during gambling and drug use. Dopamine is the hormone responsible for pleasure and reward. When users engage in SNS and they receive a ‘like’, it has been suggested that this is the same feeling as winning on slot machines or the feeling of taking amphetamine drugs – both of which are addictive. This addictive form of social validation through the act of ‘liking’ keeps young users actively engaged with the hope that one of their posts is widely approved by their peers, much the same as the lotto slogan, “if you’re not in you can’t win”. The absence of ‘likes’ may result in a form of a lack of social status validation and has resulted in the growth of mental health issues increasing in teenagers (Dapretto et al., 2016).
Comedian Marc Maron wrote “every status update is a variation of a simple request: would someone please acknowledge me?” When status updates are made, and images uploaded to image sharing platforms, they are typically done with a degree of Maron’s idea in mind. There is an abundance of social influencers online who rack up thousands of likes per post; all displaying their lavish lifestyles and flawless images of their bodies. The amount of likes a user has puts them higher in the online social hierarchy. The more likes one has, the more popular they seem to be and the absence of ‘likes’ have seemingly left users feeling ‘worthless’ after their engagements online.
This puts a certain amount of pressure for teenagers, particularly females, as there is an expectation of them to be visually, as well as verbally, present online (McCrae et al., 2016). in an effort for someone to potentially acknowledge them in the same way that popular users are viewed. This led to several studies being conducted which drew the conclusion that while gender differences are an important factor to consider, it was pointed out that body image was cause for concern amongst young females (McCrae et al., 2016). The feminist argument of ‘self-objectification’ states the idea that women are viewed as sexual objects in the eyes of men, the repetition of self-evaluation of physical appearance and with that, the feeling of anxiety and shame follow (McCrae et al., 2016). Studies have shown that combining social media and self-objectification increases the growing concern around young females commodifying themselves in an attempt for validation and thus the encouragement of comparing oneself to another.
The Social Comparison theory proposed by Leon Festinger in 1954 outlined that people evaluate themselves in comparison to others. He conceptualized Social Comparison through two processes: upward and downward comparison. Upward comparison involved a person looking at another, seeing their status or skill in someone who is potentially better than them at that skill and reviewed their own ability in relation to that skill or status. Downward comparison referred to your analysis on yourself in comparison to someone you feel does not possess the skill or status to the level that you do. While this comparative analysis can be beneficial for self-improvement, primarily with adults, it can also be beneficial for teens in developing their own sense of identity. To use this in the context of social media and adolescents, the measurements that teenagers use to compare themselves to one another are different (NewPortAcademy, 2019). While adults tend to compare themselves to one another based on wealth or status, some literature indicates that teenagers measure themselves against each other based on attractiveness or popularity – primarily in the upward comparative sense. The proclivity to compare on superficial means is causing young adults to reflect negatively on their identity and self-worth, seeing what others have that they feel they do not.
It is about how we use our ‘likes’…
While there are numerous studies, research and endless blogs published on the effects social media has on teenagers today; there are some possible solutions to explore. In a scandalous report in 2016 which stated that Facebook tracked key words and triggered algorithms to detect if a user was displaying signs of depression or anxiety by algorithms (TheGuardian, 2017). As a result of the scandal, Tumblr adopted their technologies to view likes, tags and communities such as “pro-anorexia” and educate their users on the subject (DeChoudhury, 2015). They also developed their technologies to such in the ways of predicting anorexic speech and guiding their users to educational sites and clinicians.
Robert Kraut a professor at Carnegie Mellon University spent most of his career studying the effects that social media has had on not just teenagers but adults too. He argues that a lot of the studies that have been conducted in recent times in relation to the effects social media has typically points to one flaw in its methodology – it fails to consider the well-being of the person before the study would be conducted (Kraut, 2016). Kraut goes on to debate that rather than endlessly scrolling and liking content from people that you hardly know, why not strip back your social media accounts to reflect those that you do know and content that is uplifting rather than content that is not. Kraut’s reflection on his work had some interesting points that should be considered in the context of social media ‘likes’ and content. In the process of stripping back your accounts to reflect your own interests and create a space of those you know, why not take your account into your own hands and be creative. It has been well known that social media can work at its best when its users are being creative and sharing their art or products with like-minded people. Kraut also states that social media does not have to be a place of negativity. He also argues that it can be associated with ‘self-improvements and well-being’, with the use of these methods. For example, if taking photographs is something that one enjoys there are plentiful platforms and avenues that one could take to channel their creative side on social media.
The impacts and damage that social media has been well documented, particularly on young adults. Robert Kraut offered many suggestions to this issue, but they require behavioral change on the part of the users in order to combat the anxiety felt by teenagers online. While suggesting that stripping back your friends list on social platforms may be an anecdote, the use of the ‘unfollow’ function can be very helpful and less problematic for those feeling anxious about viewing a certain someone’s post.
Kraut also talks about making our social media accounts a place of positive well-being, and potentially for adolescents, the best way to do this would be to channel their talents and post creative meaning-based content. This change that can be undertaken would hopefully encourage their peers to do so too, and the ‘like’ button would hopefully hold new meaning in this way.
Kraut’s suggestions however require behavioral changes from teenagers who may be in positions to not make these kinds of fundamental decisions. Perhaps if the educational systems take the issues that have been highlighted on both sides, by understanding the impacts while encouraging the reform by way of introducing more digital-based curriculums. Not necessarily introducing more digital technologies into the classroom but subjects that demonstrate the realities of the digital world and how best to channel our abilities through them. There are many health warnings around smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and taking drugs and through adulthood; there is more information if you do decide to use or take these substances – maybe a similar approach to social media could equally be beneficial for our younger population.
- Burke, M. and Kraut, R. (2016) Oxford Academic. The Relationship Between Facebook Use and Well-Being Depends on Communication Type and Tie Strength, 21(4), pp. 265-281.
- McCrae, N., Gettings, S. and Purssell, E. (2016) SpringerLink. Social Media and Depressive Symptoms in Childhood and Adolescence: A Systematic Review, 2, pp. 315-330.
- Dapretto, M., Greenfield, P., Hernandez, L., Payton, A. and Sherman, L. (2016) Psychological Science: The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media, 27(7), pp. 1027-1035.
- DeChoudhury (2015) Digital Library. Anorexia on Tumblr: A Characterization Study, 15, pp. 43-50.
- The Guardian (2017) ‘This oversteps a boundary’: teenagers perturbed by Facebook surveillance. London: Guardian News & Media Limited. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/02/facebook-surveillance-tech-ethics. (Accessed 30th November 2020).
- MayoClinic. (2019) Tween and Teen Health. Minnesota: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Available: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/tween-and-teen-health/in-depth/teens-and-social-media-use/art-20474437#:~:text=Social%20media%20is%20a%20big,%2C%20Facebook%2C%20Instagram%20or%20Snapchat. (Accessed 18th November 2020).
- Newport Academy Empowering Teens and Restoring Families (2019) Social Media Comparison & Teen Mental Health. Rhode Island: New Port Academy. Available: https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/empowering-teens/theory-of-social-comparison. (Accessed 30th November 2020).
- VeryWellMind (2020) Social Comparison Theory in Psychology. New York: Dotdash. Available: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-social-comparison-process-2795872. (Accessed 30th November 2020).
Rebecca McDonnell is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway