Does social media actually depress people? A new study says yes — sort of.

For some time now, we’ve been hearing the contention made that social media causes people to become angry or depressed.

One aspect of this phenomenon, the argument goes, is the “politicization” of social media — most recently exhibited in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Another aspect is the notion that since so many people engage in never-ending “happy talk” on social media — presenting their activities and their lives as a constant stream of oh-so-fabulous experiences — it’s only natural that those who encounter those social posts invariably become depressed when comparing them to their own dreary lives that come up wanting.

But much of this line of thought has been mere conjecture, awaiting analysis by social scientists.

One other question I’ve had in my mind is one of causation:  Even if you believe that social media contributes to feelings of depression and/or anger, is using social media what makes people feel depressed … or are people who are prone to depression or anger the very people who are more likely to use social media in the first place?

Recently, we’ve begun to see some research work that is pointing to the causation — and the finding that social media does actually contribute to negative mental health for some users of social media.

One such study appeared in the February 2017 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. Titled “Association of Facebook Use with Compromised Well-Being:  A Longitudinal Study,” the paper presents findings from three sets of data collected from ~5,200 subjects in Gallup’s Social Network panel.

The researchers — Drs. Holly Shakya and Nicholas Christakis — studied the relationships between Facebook activity over time with self-reported measures such as physical health, mental health and overall life satisfaction. There were other, more objective measures that were part of the analysis as well, such as weight and BMI information.

The study detected a correlation between increased Facebook activity and negative impacts on the well-being of the research subjects.  ore specifically, certain users who practiced the following social media behaviors more often (within one standard deviation) …

  • Liking social posts
  • Following links on Facebook
  • Updating their own social status frequently

… showed a decrease of 5% to 8% of a standard deviation in their emotional well-being.

As it turns out, the same correlation also applied when tracking people who migrated from light to moderate Facebook usage; these individuals were prone to suffer negative mental health impacts similar to the subjects who gravitated from moderate to heavy Facebook usage.

The Shakya/Christakis study presented several hypotheses seeking to explain the findings, including:

  • Social media usage comes at the expense of “real world,” face-to-face interactions.
  • Social media usage undermines self-esteem by triggering users to compare their own lives with the carefully constructed pictures presented by their social media contacts.

But what about that? It could be argued that heavy social media users are spending a good deal more time engaged in an activity which by definition is a pretty sedentary one.  Might the decreased physical activity of heavy social media users have a negative impact on mental health and well-being, too?

We won’t know anything much more definitive until the Shakya/Christakis study can be replicated in another longitudinal research study. However, it’s often quite difficult to replicate such findings in subsequent research, where results can be affected by how the questions are asked, how random the sample really is, and so forth.

I’m sure there are many social scientists who are itching to settle these fundamental questions about social media, but we might be waiting a bit longer; these research endeavors aren’t as tidy a process as one might think.

Quick-change artistry: Masculinity goes from “alpha-male” to “alta-male” inside of a generation.

Alpha-male: Venezuelan actor Alejandro Nones
Alpha-male: Venezuelan/Mexican actor Alejandro Nones

Many people contend that changes in society are driven by many influences – not least movies and music. Certainly, the popular arts reflect the current culture, but they also drive its evolution.

This view was underscored recently in the results of field research conducted by a British- and Singapore-based survey firm Join the Dots for Dennis Publishing, which has just launched Coach, a magazine in the U.K.

The magazine’s audience consists of men who are committed to lifestyles that make themselves “healthier, fitter and happier.”

The research aimed to figure out what are today’s characteristics of being “male.” An in-depth qualitative focus group session with men aged 22 to 60 helped establish the set of questions that was then administered in a quantitative survey of ~1,000 respondents (including some women as well as men) between the ages of 25 and 54 years old.  The survey sample represented a diverse mix of family status, sexual preferences, incomes, professions and interests.

The survey questions focused on the habits and aspirations of men … and the results showed how far we’ve come from the heydays of the “alpha-male” barely 25 years ago.

The researchers contrasted good and not-go-good alpha-male stereotypes (self-absorbed … unwilling or unable to talk about insecurities or vulnerabilities) with a new persona they dubbed the “alta-male.”

The alta-male is a man who values work/life balance and finds personal fulfillment as much in self-improvement as in material wealth.

Additionally, the alta-male tends to reject male role models from earlier generations, instead opting to establish their own identity based on a myriad of diverse influences.

Of course, it’s one thing to aspire to these goals and quite another to actually attain them. The study found that two-thirds of the respondents are finding it difficult to achieve the satisfactory work/life balance they desire.

On the other hand, alta-males tend to be more adaptable, and they’re willing to embrace uncertainty more than the alpha-males of yore.

Even more strongly, alta-males are seekers of experiences, which they value over “mere money” – despite recognizing that it takes money to partake in many such life experiences.

More of an alta-male: American businessman Phillip Nones

Perhaps most surprising, the study found little difference in perspectives between older and younger male respondents.

It turns out that older men are just as likely to have an “alta-male” attitude towards life.  So clearly, the culture has been rubbing off on them, too.

From my own personal standpoint (as someone whose been around the track quite a few times over the decades), I sense a similar shift in my own personal perspectives as well.

What about the rest of you?

Inked in stone: One societal trend that’s going off the charts.

ttWhat’s one of the biggest societal trends in America nowadays? Believe it or not, it’s the rapidly growing popularity of tattoos.

Once the province of just a slim slice of the American population, today we’re smack in the middle of dramatic changes in attitudes about tattoos.

Let’s begin with figures published by the Harris Poll recently, based on its survey or more than 4,000 American conducted in late 2015. That survey finds that nearly one in three Americans age 18 or older have at least one tattoo (29%, to be exact).

Not only did that percentage surprise me, but also the increase that represents over a similar Harris Poll conducted just four years ago. In that survey, ~21% reported having a tattoo … which means that the nearly 40% more people have tattoos today than in 2010.

Pretty amazing, I thought.  And the surprises don’t stop there, either. Of those people who are tattooed, more than two-thirds report that they have more than one tattoo.

What isn’t surprising at all is that the tattoo craze is most prevalent among younger Americans:

  • Millennials: ~47% report having at least one tattoo
  • GenX: ~36%
  • Baby Boomers: ~13%
  • Matures: ~10%

There are also some locational differences, with rural and urban Americans somewhat more likely to be tattooed than those people who reside in suburbia:

  • Rural folks: ~35% have at least one tattoo
  • Urban dwellers: ~33%
  • Suburbanites: ~25%

[There’s no discernible difference at all between people of differing partisan/political philosophies, according to Harris.]

With such a big increase in tattooing, the next question is, what’s behind the trend? For clues, we can see how respondents described what their tattoo(s) mean to them personally:

  • Makes me feel more sexy: ~33% of tattooed Americans cited
  • Makes me feel more attractive: ~32%
  • Makes me feel more non-conformist/rebellious: ~27%
  • Makes me feel more spiritual: ~20%

[Far smaller percentages felt that their tattoo(s) made them feel more intelligent, more employable, more respected or more healthy.]

But what about regrets? Are there people who wish they hadn’t taken the plunge?  The Harris survey found that approximately one in four respondents do feel at least some regrets about having a tattoo.  The reasons why are varied — yet all pretty obvious:

  • Personality changes … doesn’t fit my present lifestyle
  • The tattoo includes someone’s name I’m no longer with
  • The tattoo was poorly done … doesn’t look professional
  • The tattoo is no longer meaningful to me
  • I was too young when I got the tattoo

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to conclude that tattoos are a generational thing. Those of us north of age 50 don’t have any tattoos — and likely will never get one.

But for the younger generations, not only have tattoos gone “mainstream,” for many they’re a decidedly aspirational thing.  And that, of course, means ever widening acceptance of tattoos along with encountering more of them than ever before.

Comments … thoughts anyone?

“Social Media Stress Syndrome”: Real or Fake?

Social Media Stress SyndromeThere’s no denying the benefits of social media in enabling people to make new friendships, reconnect with old acquaintances, and nurture existing relationships.

Facebook and other social platforms make it easier than ever to maintain “in the moment” connections with people the world over. 

Speaking for myself, my immediate relatives who live in foreign lands seem so much closer because of social media.

Plus, thanks to social media, I’ve met other relatives from several different countries for the very first time.  This would never have happened in the pre-Facebook era.

But there are downsides to social media, too – and I’ve written about them on this blog on occasion; for example, whether social media is a platform for narcissists.

Other negative consequences of social media have been noted by numerous observers of consumer online behaviors, including Canadian digital marketing company Mediative’s Senior Vice President and online marketing über-specialist Gord Hotchkiss.

Gord Hotchkiss
Gord Hotchkiss

In a recently published column by Hotchkiss headlined “The Stress of Hyper-Success,” he posits that self-regard and personal perspectives of “success” are relative.  Here’s a critical passage from what he writes:

“We can only judge it [success] by looking at others.  This creates a problem, because increasingly, we’re looking at extreme outliers as our baseline for expectations.”

Hotchkiss’ contention is that social media engenders feelings of stress in many people that would not occur otherwise.

Pinterest is a example.  A recent survey of ~7,000 U.S. mothers conducted by Today.com found that ~42% of respondents suffer from this social media-induced stress; it’s the notion that they can’t live up to the ideal suggested by the images of domestic bliss posted on the female-dominated Pinterest social network.

Facebook causes a similar reaction in many; Hotchkiss reports on a survey showing that one-third of Facebook users “feel worse” after visiting the site.

It may not be hard to figure out why, either, as visitors are often confronted with too-good-to-be-true photo galleries chronicling friends’ lavish vacations, social gatherings, over-the-top wedding ceremonies, etc.

Social Media EnvyIt’s only natural for people to focus their attention on the “extraordinary” posts of this type … and to discount the humdrum posts focusing on the mundane aspects of daily life. 

Just like in the national or local news, people tend to focus on personal news items that are exceptional – the activities that are set far apart from the average.

Wall Street Journal report Meghan McBride Kelly has come up with a pretty interesting way to address social media stress:  She quit Facebook earlier this year after a nine-year run.  McBride contends that “Aristotle wouldn’t ‘friend’ you on Facebook,” writing:

“Aristotle wrote that friendship involves a degree of love.  If we were to ask ourselves whether all of our Facebook friends were those we loved, we’d certainly answer that they’re not.  These days, we devote equal if not more time to tracking the people we have had very limited interaction with than to those whom we truly love.”

Likewise, Hotchkiss tries to head us off at the social media pass:

“Somewhere, a resetting of expectations is required before we self-destruct because of hyper-competitiveness in trying to reach an unreachable goal.  To end on a gratuitous pop culture quote, courtesy of Sheryl Crow:  ‘It’s not having what you want.  It’s wanting what you got.”

What are your thoughts about “social media stress disorder”?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

Is Charlie LeDuff’s Book the Final Word on Detroit and its Social Pathologies?

Abandoned Apartment Building in Detroit, MI
Abandoned apartment building in Detroit.

I’ve blogged before about the city of Detroit, surely our country’s “Exhibit A” when it comes to chronicling urban decline.

The saga of Detroit’s recent history is pretty widely known, thanks to a bevy of articles in news magazines, lurid photo essays by prominent “ruin porn” photographers like Camilo José Vergara, and books by author Ze’ev Chafets and others.

Detroit: An American Autopsy, a book by Charlie LeDuffBut the most recent volume, Detroit: An American Autopsy, authored by journalist and reporter Charlie LeDuff and released earlier this year, is perhaps the most impactful of these — which makes it required reading.

That’s because not only is this book the most contemporary one on the subject – with up-to-the-minute references to the city’s most recent governmental follies – but also because the author happens to be a Detroit native.

In my view, Charlie LeDuff is one of the most fascinating reporters in the news industry today, with a background that is hardly common for journalists.

Prior to joining the staff at the Detroit News in 2008, LeDuff’s reporting career included more than a decade at the New York Times, along with a stint as a writer for an Alaskan trade publication. His reporting has taken him all over the country and the world, including the war theater in Iraq.

So LeDuff approaches his topic with all the insights of a seasoned reporter – yet he is not the dispassionate observer. After all, Detroit is his hometown. And throughout the pages of the book, you can distinctly feel the anger, the despair, and the grief the author feels about his city.

Indeed, the saga of Detroit “hits home” in many personal ways for Charlie LeDuff. Consider these points:

  • Witnessing the 1967 race rioting mere blocks from their family home in West Detroit, LeDuff’s parents, like so many other middle-class residents, choose safety for their children, moving out of the city in a matter of days following.
  • LeDuff’s mother’s florist shop, located on Jefferson Boulevard on the east side of town, is broken into multiple times – with a final act of vandalism forcing her to move to a suburban location. (The site of her former shop is now a pile of rubble.)
  • Battling chemical dependency, LeDuff’s only sister is sucked into a life on the streets, becoming a prostitute and dying one evening while leaving a dive bar on the city’s far west side.
  • LeDuff’s three brothers become casualties of Michigan’s worsening business climate, bouncing from one dead-end job to the next – each one a step lower on the economic ladder as meaningful employment for high school-educated workers dries up.
  • LeDuff’s niece, barely 20 years old, dies from a heroin overdose.

The author may have been drawn back to Detroit because of the pull of family. But what he discovers is an urban environment that has a corrosive effect on all who come into contact with it. Although he moves his wife and young daughter to a suburban enclave just outside the city limits, LeDuff finds that no one is immune to its negative effects.

In the pages of his book, LeDuff reports on the unscrupulousness and/or incompetence of entire classes of Detroiters: politicians, government bureaucrats, street hustlers, business leaders (the car company executives come in for particular opprobrium) – and even the artist community.

But the author is also quick to point out that most Detroiters are simply attempting to survive in an urban environment that is so dysfunctional, so stress-inducing, that civil behavior is nearly impossible to practice.

During his time at the Detroit News, Charlie LeDuff would pen many columns exposing the squalor and corruption he witnessed in his city. For that, he received many an irate phone message or e-mail missive lobbed his way, criticizing him for failing to spotlight the “good” attributes of Detroit.

In his book LeDuff has this to say to those people:

“[They] complained that I was focusing on the negative in a city with so much good. What about all the galleries and museums and music …? What about the good things?

It was a fair point. There are plenty of good people in Detroit. Tens of thousands of them … There are lawyers and doctors and auto executives with nice homes and good jobs and community elders trying to make things better, teachers who spend their own money on the classroom, people who mow lawns out of respect for the dead neighbor, parents who raise their children, ministers who help with funeral expenses.

But these things are not supposed to be news. These things are supposed to be normal. And when normal things become the news, the abnormal becomes the norm. And when that happens, you might as well put a fork in it.”

Charlie LeDuff is now a reporter for WJBK, the Fox affiliate TV station in Detroit. He took over for Brad Edwards, another newsman whose hard-hitting-yet-poignant stories of a city on the edge of the abyss have moved many and made both reporters so respected – even loved — by the public.

It’s a journalist’s duty to report the news, of course. But sometimes he or she can attempt to do more. I have no doubt that Charlie LeDuff felt a certain sense of “mission” when he returned to his hometown.

But traces of any significant progress are hard to find, five years on. After a string of corrupt mayors, Detroit elected the affable but ultimately unsuccessful ex-NBA player and businessman Dave Bing to the office.

Today, not only have city operations been turned over to a state-appointed administrator, Mayor Bing announced this past week that he will not be running for reelection. And so it goes …

LeDuff evokes this sense of “no hope left, writ small” as he describes the family scene at the burial of his 20-year-old niece:

“[I] looked up at the old people around the grave and considered the great turmoil of human history that they represented. My mother, her ties to the Native people of the Great Lakes and the drifting whiskered French settlers. My stepfather, whose people emigrated from the port of Danzig, the long-disputed city claimed by both the Germans the Poles, which ignited World War II. My niece’s other grandparents, hill folk who hailed from Appalachia and traced their heritage back to the Lowlands of Scotland and the warrior William Wallace.

People from all corners of the earth who came to Detroit to work in its factories and make it one of the most significant cities of history.

I looked up over the grave and surveyed the heaving sobs of my nieces and the strained faces of my brothers. Jimmy looking for work. Frankie on the verge of losing his house. Billy in the screw factory. Somehow, the city of promise had become a scrap yard of dreams.”

Yet then … LeDuff adds this glimmer of light:

“But fighters do what they do best when they’ve been staggered. They get off their knees and they fight some more.”

The question is, how much longer can Detroit go on fighting?

Is Social Media a Platform for Narcissists?

Narcissism on social mediaOver time, I’ve been seeing more articles and blog posts cropping up that broach the topic of social media and narcissism.  Here’s just one of the latest examples.

The issue boils down to this:

  • Do social media platforms cause people to become narcissistic?
  • Or is social media merely a conduit by which people who already possess narcissistic tendencies get to indulge in “self-referential behavior” on steroids?

One could probably start at the very beginning:  Is Mark Zuckerberg a narcissist?”    (Don’t answer that question!)

My own view is somewhat conflicted.  I see evidence of some people who cheerfully relish the bullhorn – and attention – that social media appears to give them.

But social media can be deceiving in that a “personal environment” can be built that seems like the whole world is watching and listening – but in reality it’s just a constructed edifice more akin to a Potemkin village.

How many people are actually reading anyone’s Twitter posts?    (Don’t answer that question!)

But I can also see clear evidence of some of the more “Type B” people I know who have made quite an impact on social media by virtue of some very impressive contributions – written information, videos, photography, etc.

In those cases, social media has been a way to extend influence well beyond a small circle of friends or colleagues – and far more than could ever be possible before.

How about you?  What are your thoughts on this topic and what have you observed?  Please share them here if you’re so inclined.

(Don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of narcissism!)

Volunteerism: Is it a Mormon and Midwestern Thing?

Volunteerism in AmericaDuring my adult life I’ve lived in all four regions of the United States. Each of them has its distinct positive aspects (along with a few not-so-positive ones).

Of course, these differences are part of what makes living in America so interesting.

One regional difference I’ve noticed is a greater predilection for volunteerism among people who live in the Midwest and Western regions. 

That anecdotal observation on my part has now been confirmed by the results of a consumer survey conducted in late 2012 by New York-based Scarborough Research.

In broad terms, Scarborough found that approximately 27% of American adults reported having participated in some form of volunteer activities over the previous year.

That percentage breaks down further by demographic age clusters as follows:

  • All Adults: ~27% have volunteered during the past year
  • Baby Boomers (age 45-64): ~34%
  • Gen Xers (age 30-44): ~27%
  • Millennials (age 18-29): ~20%
  • Silent Generation (age 65+): ~18%

Looking more closely at the 27% of respondents who volunteers, the Scarborough research revealed that, while volunteerism is found throughout the United States, certain urban markets have a distinctly larger proportion of their population so involved.

And when you look at the list – and Scarborough studied more than 85 local markets – you’re hard-pressed to find any of them located east of the Mississippi River. Instead, the list is completely skewed towards the Midwest and West:

  • Salt Lake City, UT: ~42% of adults have volunteered during the past 12 months
  • Des Moines, IA: ~34%
  • Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN: ~34%
  • Portland, OR: ~34%
  • Grand Rapids, MI: ~33%
  • San Francisco, CA: ~33%
  • Seattle, WA: ~33%
  • Green Bay, WI: ~32%

Which urban markets are at the bottom of Scarborough’s list? All of them are located in coastal states:

  • Ft. Myers, FL: ~22% of adults have volunteered
  • Las Vegas, NV: ~22%
  • New Orleans, LA: ~22%
  • Bakersfield, CA: ~21%
  • El Paso, TX: ~21%
  • Harlington, TX: ~20%
  • Miami, FL: ~20%
  • Providence, RI: ~20%

Scarborough also found that those who volunteer their time tend to be more generous with their financial support:

  • They are ~84% more likely to have contributed to an arts or cultural organization within the past year
  • ~61% more likely to contribute to an environmental organization
  • ~60% more likely to financially support a social care, welfare or political organization
  • ~57% more likely to have contributed to a religious organization

More details on the Scarborough Research findings, including stats for more than 85 local markets, can be found here.