CEOs don't often make admissions; and even if they do, they rarely ask for forgiveness. Mark Zuckerberg did both recently - a sure sign that Facebook isn't the happy place it used to be - for its users, and perhaps, for its founders too.
Acknowledging that 'passively consuming' Facebook might be worsening users' mental health, the company's (in)famous CEO said he was sorry for the ways his work was used "to divide people". This public repentance came after a former executive lambasted the social network for "ripping apart the social fabric" of communities world over, with its "short-term, dopamine-driven loops... (With) no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth."
Whew! Weighty words in a growing chorus of criticism of the social media giant. But are they justified? Does social media usage really makes us unhappy or are we clutching on to an easy (and lazy) straw as it were? Is it another of those pet theories everyone collectively likes to believe in?
"A few years ago, I used to be happy to log into Facebook...I reconnected with old classmates, far-away relatives, cousins...I used to share everything from my dog's birthday to me eating noodles for dinner...but not anymore," says Ankita Gurikar, a homemaker and former HR executive. Ankita says she began cutting back when her feed started getting vicious and catty, thanks to a profusion of fake news and polarised political views. "I felt it was driving a wedge between me and my friends rather than connecting us; it also made me feel moody and inadequate." From obsessively checking updates to deleting her FB app, Ankita has traversed what is becoming a familiar arc.
It seems there are many Ankitas out there. Last month, Facebook admitted that users are spending 50 million fewer hours a day on the social network. Anecdotal evidence does suggest that though Facebook is still everyone's favourite online hangout, many users have started to look elsewhere.
For some like Nisha Ramachandran, a homemaker, alarm bells started ringing when it began to take over her mental space completely. "I couldn't let half an hour pass without checking for updates; it was intruding in my work and I was getting involved in needless drama with so-called friends who were barely acquaintances." But it wasn't easy to get away from either. When she stayed away for a few days, she got not-so-gentle reminders from the social network, alerting her to friends' updates and coaxing her to get back into the fold. But Nisha is determined not too. For how long though, she isn't sure.
Keeping the toxic away
Sushumna Kannan, a cultural researcher and faculty at San Diego State University, believes unless we are vigilant about what we are consuming on FB, we will end up harming our mental well-being. "But this is not to say there is nothing positive about it. We do design our news feed and we must take some responsibility for what we see. Yes, my life is duller when compared to few others...I don't enjoy dressing up and posing for photos. This is the real life me and as long as there is no confusion about that, the reel-life pictures lure me less and hurt me less. I am my real self on FB too and that helps greatly," she says. For Sushumna, there came a point when she felt she couldn't handle her family as FB friends. "Unfriending my family is the best decision I took. Minimising online interaction has helped better my real-life relationships. Purging people who are toxic, and refusing to indulge requests from people whom I barely know, has helped me keep my sanity online," she adds.
As a researcher, she understands the pitfalls of envy online more than others perhaps might. "If there was a way in which I could show off without causing envy in others, I would, but there is no other way. People have only so much tolerance for what life does not give them and that is true of me as well," she says wisely.
Middle East-based media consultant Sarah Al Mojadidi has researched extensively on Internet usage and addiction. She says how good you feel mentally after a bout of social networking depends largely on your age and offline well-being. "For people who have lost a loved one, are fired from their jobs or things are not going very well for them, the dark side of Facebook surfaces rather quickly. For youngsters who are going through a break-up or are in a complicated relationship, Facebook becomes the place for 'ghost dating', stalking exes and obsessing over what is not. But to blame the medium is futile; if you are sad and everything around you looks rosy...people vacationing, leading beautiful lives...it makes you go deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole of depression. Facebook, like all vices in life, need to be indulged in with caution and moderation," she explains.
As Sarah says, no one wants to post bad news on Facebook, unless it is a death announcement. And if you are already on the lower end of the mental spectrum and you see a surfeit of joyous news and celebrations, it is bound to pull you down further.
A 2016 study by German researchers found this to be largely true. Scrolling through happy status updates, beautiful family moments and holiday pictures made users more jealous, anxious and unhappy than they already were.
A carefully curated life
Dr Manoj K Sharma, additional professor at SHUT (Service for Healthy Use of Technology), India's first tech de-addiction clinic at Nimhans, says ultimately, whether social media makes us unhappy or not depends on preexisting psychological distress and personality factors such as introversion. "People also feel positive online - if they are able to connect with old friends and get socio-emotional support. Social media is a good place to vent, but it becomes a worrying issue when it is used as the only 'coping method' for personal problems," he says. The clinic has come across several instances of youngsters suffering from OCD as well as other psycho-social dysfunctions such as social anxiety, insomnia, depression etc., due to excessive use of Internet.
Evidently, human behaviour is as perplexing online as it is in real life. Hence, the question of whether social media makes us unhappy or we are already troubled and find it easy to blame the medium becomes a sort of chicken and egg conundrum. In this context, the findings of economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, author of Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are, turn out to be quite revealing. It seems people are terribly honest in Google searches while presenting a carefully curated life on Facebook. For instance, on FB, among the top adjectives wives use for their husbands are 'amazing' and 'so cute', while on Google the top five include 'jerk', 'annoying' and 'gay'. Google, he says, is the digital 'truth serum' to Facebook's artifice. He proposes a self-help mantra for the 21st century - "Don't compare your Google searches with other people's Facebook posts." Ah. Quite the last word on the topic eh!