While I don't want to excuse mental laziness, I think it's understandable sometimes if laypeople come to the conclusion that for every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.
I ran into a good example of this over at Science Daily yesterday, when I read an article about the modern penchant for "creating content" wherever we go -- by which they mean things like taking photos and posting them on social media, tweeting or Facebook posting during experiences like concerts, sports events, and political rallies, and just in general never doing anything without letting the world know about it.
I'm not a social media addict by any stretch of the imagination, but I know I have that tendency sometimes myself. I've tried to avoid Twitter ever since the presidential race really heated up, because I very quickly got sick of all the posturing and snarling and TWEETS IN ALL CAPS from people who should know better but apparently have the decorum and propriety of Attila the Hun. I find Instagram a lot more fun because it's all photographs, and there's less opportunity for vitriol. Even so, I still post on both pretty regularly, even if I don't reach the level of Continuous Live-Stream Commentary some people do. (For what it's worth, I'm on Twitter @TalesOfWhoa and Instagram @skygazer227. You're welcome to follow me on either or both. Be forewarned if you follow me on Instagram, however, you'll mostly see pics of my dogs, gardens, pottery projects, and various running-related stuff.)
The content-creation study, which appeared in the Journal of Marketing and was a team effort between researchers at Rutgers and New York Universities, found that contrary to the usual conventional wisdom that if you want to really enjoy something you should put away your phone, enjoyment and appreciation of experience increases when people are allowed to do things like tweet, Facebook post, or take and post photographs. "In contrast to popular press advice," said study co-author Gabriela Tonietto, "this research uncovers an important benefit of technology's role in our daily lives... by generating content relevant to ongoing experiences, people can use technology in a way that complements, rather than interferes with, their experiences."
The problem is, this runs afoul of other studies that have shown social media engagement to be directly proportional to depression, anxiety, and disconnection from face-to-face contact with others. A quick search will give you as many links as you like, to peer-reviewed research -- not just quick-takes in popular magazines -- warning of the dangers of spending time on social media. Pick any one of these and you'll come away with the impression that whatever facet of social media the study looked at was the root of all modern psychiatric disorders.
Humans, though, are complex. We don't categorize easily. Social media might well create a sense of isolation in some and foster connectedness in others. One person might derive real enjoyment from posting her vacation photos on Instagram; another might berate himself for how few "likes" he'd gotten. There's also the problem of mistaking correlation for causation in all of these studies. The people who report social media boosting their enjoyment might well be those who were well-adjusted to start with, for whom social media was simply another fun way to connect with friends and acquaintances; the people for whom it generates depression, anxiety, or addictive behavior could have had those tendencies beforehand, and the all-too-common desperation for "likes" simply made it all worse. A paper in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking back in 2014 admitted this up front:
During the past decade, online social networking has caused profound changes in the way people communicate and interact. It is unclear, however, whether some of these changes may affect certain normal aspects of human behavior and cause psychiatric disorders. Several studies have indicated that the prolonged use of social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook, may be related to signs and symptoms of depression. In addition, some authors have indicated that certain SNS activities might be associated with low self-esteem, especially in children and adolescents. Other studies have presented opposite results in terms of positive impact of social networking on self-esteem. The relationship between SNS use and mental problems to this day remains controversial, and research on this issue is faced with numerous challenges.
So I'm always inclined to view research on social and psychological trends with a bit of a weather eye. Well-conducted research into the workings of our own psychology and sociology can be fascinating, but humans are complicated beasts and confounding factors are legion. The upshot of the social media studies for me can be summarized in a Marie Kondo-ism: "does it spark joy?" If posting photos of your pets' latest antics on Instagram boosts your enjoyment, have at it. If you like pretending to be a color commentator on Twitter while watching your favorite team play, go for it. If it all makes you feel depressed, anxious, or alone, maybe it is time to put away the phone.
In any case, I'm going to wind this up, because I need to share the link to today's post on Facebook and Twitter. My public awaits. And if I don't post on time, my like-total for the day will be low, and we can't have that.
This week's Skeptophilia book-of-the-week is about our much maligned and poorly-understood cousins, the Neanderthals.
In Rebecca Wragg Sykes's new book Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death, and Art we learn that our comic-book picture of these prehistoric relatives of Homo sapiens were far from the primitive, leopard-skin-wearing brutes depicted in movies and fiction. They had culture -- they made amazingly evocative and sophisticated art, buried their dead with rituals we can still see traces of, and most likely had both music and language. Interestingly, they interbred with more modern Homo sapiens over a long period of time -- DNA analysis of humans today show that a great many of us (myself included) carry around significant numbers of Neanderthal genetic markers.
It's a revealing look at our nearest recent relatives, who were the dominant primate species in the northern parts of Eurasia for a hundred thousand years. If you want to find out more about these mysterious hominins -- some of whom were our direct ancestors -- you need to read Sykes's book. It's brilliant.
[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]