Is social media making the young less happy?

'The Happiness Effect' author Donna Freitas answers questions on the role that social media plays in the social, professional, religious, and emotional lives of the young.

Parker Young
Donna Freitas talked with students on 13 different college campuses about social media for her book 'The Happiness Effect.'

Social media has become a dominant force in the lives of young people today – but for many it’s creating anxiety at least as often as it is promoting connectedness, contends Donna Freitas, author of The Happiness Effect. Drawing on a large-scale survey and interviews with students on 13 different college campuses, Freitas recently answered questions for the Monitor about her findings on social media and its impact on young lives.  

Q. What kinds of emotion does social media seem to be creating in young people?

I would say that [social media] creates both anxiety and also enjoyment for everyone, not just young adults and college students. When I’ve spoken to colleagues and friends about the results of my study, just about everyone has been able to relate to and concur with the stresses and frustrations described by the college students I interviewed. And I want to be clear that, for the most part, nobody can really imagine social media and smartphones (which are basically social media delivery devices as this point) going away – though a few students did fantasize about this.

The two biggest frustrations raised by participants in the study had to do with the belief that everything people put online attached to their names is fake to some degree, as well as this pressure to appear happy and positive, which is where my book gets its name. These two frustrations are related to each other, of course. College students have imbibed the notion that they must “put on a happy face” – in the words of one interviewee – at all times online.

Profiles that emphasize positivity, happiness, and evidence of success, personal achievement, beauty, even wealth, will appeal to college admissions officers (if you are still in high school), and later on, to future employers and anyone that in a position to evaluate and/or hire you. Young adults are learning to put on a good online performance of their lives, in other words, in order to impress and please people who might help or hurt their future endeavors. This “performance” of happiness and positivity happens largely in the service of people that hold power over their professional success/failure, rather than social success/failure, but students also saw a competitive dimension occurring with respect to what their peers/friends post as well, by default. One interviewee called it a “happiness competition,” and many others saw online profiles as a space where people jockey for social popularity as well.

Q. What's the result of all this pressure?

Posting online becomes exhausting because it’s so high stakes. Very few students I interviewed posted a lot, because deciding what to post is so complicated and potentially problematic if you post the wrong thing, or if what you post doesn’t garner the desired results (online approval and praise, likes, reposts, etc.). 

The other problem is that – because young adults know that they are curating, cultivating, and crafting their online profiles to the letter (the “three c’s” as I came to think of them), in order to promote their “brands” as many students explained – they know that everyone else is doing this too. Which means that a lot of what their friends post is also “fake” to at least a degree. This makes young adults frustrated. What you see online isn’t “real” in other words, because it’s all curated and crafted, and it often contradicts what they know of their friends/significant others in real life. This is maddening to so many young adults. Also, even though they know that everyone else around them is busy crafting and curating all the time, when they go online and see only the successes, triumphs, joys, and perfect pictures of everyone they know, they end up feeling bad about themselves, and experiencing quite a hefty dose of FOMO, too (Fear of Missing Out).

It’s been so interesting to me, after having done this study, the way we are talking about “fake news” because of the presidential election, and the way that fake news is so poisonous to our society. The students I spoke with were already angered and frustrated by the “fake profiles” people are learning to create, and the way that such personal fakery can poison their relationships and self-esteem.

Q. Is this anxiety a greater problem for young people than for the rest of society?

Yes and no. As I mentioned above, just about everyone I know is online all the time, obsessing over their profiles and the posts and profiles of other people, and the self-esteem rollercoaster the students described because of social media seems common regardless of a person’s age.

The one massive difference, though, is the professional vulnerability, and social vulnerability to a degree, too, of young adults. Friends who are in their thirties and forties today didn’t grow up online, and they are generally already established in their social and professional lives. This allows a person a greater amount of freedom to be honest, it seems. One of my friends, who is already established in her career, feels more okay about posting that she had a terrible day or is angry about something, especially if it has to do with politics, than someone who is twenty and worried about what a future employer might think about a potential hire’s emotional stability or political affiliations. A lot of the students I interviewed were absolutely appalled by their parents’ posts, and how their parents didn’t seem to know any better about what to post and what not to. They couldn’t believe the way their parents would get emotional or say embarrassing things or be honest to a degree that they would never, for fear of negative repercussions. But generally their parents were also long established in their social and professional circles, whereas they have all of this ahead of them.

Though, I do believe the same concerns that young adults have about consequences for certain posts – not getting into the college of their choice, or not getting hired for jobs – do apply for any person, regardless of age, who is in a professionally vulnerable position. It is very common for employers today to search a person’s profiles, and I am guessing that when a person is job searching – even if they are in their forties or fifties – might get the same scrutiny as someone in college or just out. So, if you have posts all over that express anger, dismay, or hardcore political affiliations, you might be risking getting hired. Perhaps you could contract a college student to do a social media “cleanup” for you! (Students talked about doing such cleanups all the time during the interviews.)

Q. You suggest that it’s particularly a problem for young women. Why is that?

I’d say more that the young adults I interviewed suggest this. A lot of the people I interviewed tended to think of social media as a place for “girls” because of the accompanying believe that girls are more talkative, more social, and more self-centered and vain. There is a belief that girls post more, and that they post more pictures because they need a constant stream of affirmation of their beauty and popularity. Social media seems yet another place where women experience double standards and stereotyping.

As far as body image goes, young women also felt that the pressure to appear perfect, beautiful, like they have the perfect clothes and body, was far higher for them than for men. They also felt that the “comparing oneself to others” phenomenon was particularly cruel for women, since women’s bodies get evaluated far more intensely and often nastily than men’s, and women’s bodily self-esteem takes a deeper hit when they go online and see other women’s perfect physiques and beautiful photos.

Q. Do religious faith and social media sometimes collide in the lives of young people?

For young adults who are devout Christians, many see social media as a boon and an amazing place for evangelizing. For some of the Orthodox Jews I interviewed, social media was this great place to see the “outside” world and also go around parents’ strict rules about boyfriends and girlfriends and find a potential marriage partner on their own.

But most of the students I interviewed who were not devout in any faith were loath to mention any religious affiliation online. Many regard religion as a private and personal thing, not to be shared. A lot also do not want to be seen as imposing their faith on others. And plenty applied the “no religion or politics” criteria I heard about so often, since you never want to risk raising red flags with a potential employer who might be of a different faith or political affiliation.

Young adults see the job market as incredibly cutthroat and always have it in their minds that a future employer could be looking at hiring them or one other candidate that seems identical on paper – and that the slightest detail could make it go in the other candidate’s favor – like they have different political or religious affiliations than their employer, for instance.

I have wondered, though, if I did this study today after such a contentious presidential election, if the students I interviewed would have changed their polities about not posting about politics! It does seem (from my own students) that there was plenty of posting about the candidates going on online, but I wonder how much of that occurred on anonymous sites like Yik Yak or under anonymous twitter handles, or that has since been “cleaned up” on profiles attached to their names.

Q. What role does social media play in dating and romance in the lives of young people?

Aside from people “facebook stalking” potential romantic interests and partners, most of the students I interviewed still preferred to meet people in person. They afterwards they’d do the online stalking to learn more about the person.

As far as using apps and facebook to “meet” potential dates – most students thought it would be a total failure on their part to have to do online dating, since they are at college and surrounded by potential dates. Plus, they think online dating is dangerous, and many couldn’t believe the stupidity of their parents who date online all the time, and risk meeting up with potential serial killers on a regular basis.

College students seem really split on apps like Tinder. Lots of people were really against Tinder and apps like it, since again they regard it as a total failure to have to resort to apps in order to meet potential romantic/hookup partners. But there were plenty of students who told me that they were on Tinder, but only for either a self-esteem boost – when they are feeling unattractive they can go on it, see who has hearted and liked them in order to feel better about themselves, but never follow up with anyone. Or as a tool for flirtation – they go on it to see if that cute guy from their physics class is also on it, so they can let that guy know they think he’s cute, and then go from there.

For the most part, whether it was friendship or romance, college students regard social media as convenient for making plans and keeping in touch with people who are far away – it was a tool for maintaining and arranging contact, rather than a tool for meeting people for the first time.

Q. Should there be an ethical code governing social media?

That’s a great question! But I’m afraid I don’t have the answer.

I would say, though, that we need to think more about the ways social media and smartphones are changing our sense of identity and relationships, for the sake of the young adults in our lives. Most of us go straight to the fears we have around social media and our children and students – sexting/naked photo scandals and bullying/suicide, etc. – which are hugely important issues to think about. BUT, what the young adults I interviewed really wanted to talk about and have someone help them think about were more basic, less scandalous issues, like: What do I do when the friend I know in person is posting things that don’t reflect who she is at all? How do I handle my self-esteem/sense of my own popularity, when people never “like” my photos or I seem kind of invisible to everyone else online? Is there a way that I could be more honest about my feelings and beliefs without potentially damaging my future career? Etc.

Q. What do you think could be done to lessen social media-related anxiety?

I think we, as a society, as parents and teachers and mentors and yes, college admissions officers and future employers, need to re-consider the way we have come to use social media profiles to evaluate and judge young adults, their worth, their applications, their potential as employees.

While I understand the impulse to do this, and the accompanying advice we are giving young people to do social media cleanups and to watch what they say and post online, there is also the reality that they are online nearly constantly, and in being online nearly constantly, are learning they must be “performing” happiness, success, positivity, etc. – all things that would look good on a CV – yet doing so in online forums that originated for people to be social.

Social media, at least the profiles attached to our real names, is becoming professionalized, and with it, the so-called posts and behavior of young adults is becoming professionalized with it. Young people today, especially the college bound and high achieving, are already so stretched and stressed with expectations for achievement and success, and now social media is yet another area where they must perform. It’s taking such a toll, and we need to figure out how to alleviate this.

This will require us to tackle a tough question: while watching what you say online (even if it makes you dishonest or means you can’t participate) can be good advice on the one hand, it’s also very disempowering and disheartening to the myriads of young people who also just want to “be themselves” and be silly, goof off, and maybe be a bit sad online as well. With the advice to do cleanups and to always “put on a happy face,” we are also criticizing the tender, more vulnerable selves of the young people in our lives. We are essentially teaching them to hide who they really are, in order to achieve success in life—whether we intended this or not.

Q. What can parents and other adults do to help?

We need to have more conversations about social media with the young people in our lives – and by conversations I do not mean more rules and criteria for posts. I’m talking about the meaning of social media, how it makes us feel, how it’s changing our sense of identity and place in the world.

The young adults I spoke with were craving spaces – often academic ones – where they could safely think through social media and smartphones on a more theoretical, philosophical, and ethical level. Despite the ways that social media has come to dominate our lives, most of the interviewees said that the only conversations they’d ever had with adults, mentors, teachers or professors about social media, were the ones about rules and what not to do online, or how to use social media as a personal marketing tool and as a way to establish their personal “brand.”

My interviews ran long in so many cases just because the young women and men were so excited to have space and time to talk about social media on a theoretical level. I think we need to give them this more often.

And I think we need to be careful about our very rational, well-meaning advice about posting – since, however well-meaning and good advice it may be, given today’s climate, it’s also taking an emotional and social toll.

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