The evolutionary perspective argues evolutionary mismatch, well-being, social belonging, social monitoring that social media exploits people’s evolved psychological mechanisms for social belonging and monitoring, thus explaining why people continue to use social media widely despite its potential harmful effects.
Social media broadly refers to platforms that allow for the production and sharing of content online, which include collaborative projects (e.g., Wikipedia), weblogs (e.g., YouTube), and social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Instagram). On the one hand, social media can facilitate the expansion and maintenance of social networks, thereby bringing about improved psychological well-being and life satisfaction (Kim and Lee 2011; Valenzuela et al. 2009) as well as reduced stress via perceived social support (Nabi et al. 2013). On the other hand, a host of nontrivial adverse effects also accompany its usage, such as negative mood (Sagioglou and Greitemeyer 2014), low self-esteem (Neira and Barber 2014), and depression (Morrison and Gore 2010).
As the virtual engagement with others on social media increasingly becomes an integral part of everyday life and carries real-life consequences for its users, the effects of social media and the factors that drive its usage have become key public concerns and received notable research attention (e.g., Kim et al. 2009; Morrison and Gore 2010; Nabi et al. 2013; Neira and Barber 2014; Valenzuela et al. 2009). The current entry reviews some contemporary explanations of social media usage, highlights their explanatory shortcomings, and demonstrates how an evolutionary perspective can address these gaps.
Current Theories of Social Media Usage and Effects
Several theories have been proposed to explain people’s extensive use of social media. The cognitive-behavioral model of pathological Internet use (Davis 2001) suggests that positive reinforcements, such as receiving likes, positive comments, and other sources of social validation, entice people to continue using social media. When coupled with underlying psychopathology (e.g., social anxiety, low self-esteem, depression), problematic outcomes occur, including excessive social media use and maladaptive cognitions. Maladaptive cognitions refer to distorted thoughts involving self-doubt and negative self-appraisal, such as “I am only good online” or “nobody loves me offline.” Empirical support for this model is evinced from the documented associations between depression and pathological Internet use (Shapira et al. 2000; Caplan 2005). The socio-cognitive model of Internet addiction (LaRose et al. 2003) offers a similar explanation and proposes that because Internet use can be psychologically rewarding, people are incentivized to continue using it. When combined with low self-regulation and high self-efficacy, habitual Internet use can develop, resulting in extensive social media usage. Finally, the social skill model (Caplan 2005) posits that people engage in social media activity because they perceive online social interactions more favorably than in-person, face-to-face interactions. Over time, this preference for online social interactions results in compulsive social media use. According to this model, people are more likely to have or develop this preference if they perceive themselves as lacking self-presentational skills (McKenna and Bargh 1999) or if they believe that “one is safer, more efficacious, more confident, and more comfortable with online interpersonal interactions and relationships” (Caplan 2005, p. 629).
These theories are useful in elucidating the “how’s” and “what’s” of social media, thus shedding light on the precursors and outcomes associated with social media use. However, they are inadequate in addressing the fundamental “why” questions, such as why human beings would be so amenable to social media in the first place or why excessive social media use can be harmful. In the following sections, we apply an evolutionary analysis to social media and describe how social media interacts with our evolved psychology, which in turn gives rise to its various effects on human behavior and well-being. In so doing, we also demonstrate how an evolutionary perspective can address fundamental questions associated with social media usage and its effects.
The Evolutionary Basis of Social Media Use and Effects
From an evolutionary perspective, human behaviors are the products of psychological adaptations that evolved to solve recurrent survival and reproductive challenges. Because humans rely heavily on social groups to meet their survival and reproductive needs, individuals who get ousted from their groups face a tremendous survival disadvantage. As such, our psychology is adapted to facilitate behaviors that increase the likelihood of social inclusion and reduce the likelihood of social exclusion. The need to belong and desire for social acceptance may have evolved in humans to motivate affiliative behaviors and increase the likelihood of being included in groups (Buss 1990).
In order to enact adaptive behaviors to maintain or protect inclusionary status, humans may have also evolved a social monitoring system to detect cues signaling important social information, such as indicators of social approval or rejection (Pickett and Gardner 2005), which then trigger the psychological mechanisms responsible for producing appropriate adaptive behavioral responses. For example, self-esteem has been argued to be an internal gauge that signals how well liked or socially accepted a person is (Leary et al. 1995). When people detect that they have been socially rejected or excluded, their self-esteem correspondingly decreases. This aversive psychological experience adaptively activates compensating behaviors that may appear aimed at restoring self-esteem on the surface, but are more fundamentally aimed at repairing their social acceptability. Hence, the social monitoring system plays a critical role in detecting social information that conveys the status of social relationships and acceptance in social groups.
Social Media Hijacks Our Evolved Social Psychology
People’s amenability to social media can be understood in terms of social media’s function as an outlet for people to satisfy their evolved social needs. In a small ancestral village, events that occurred to a person would be maximally only three degrees of separation away from anybody else in that village (Christakis and Fowler 2009). Thus, any social information was likely to be self-relevant and important because of the small size of a village community, and we likely evolved to be highly sensitive to all kinds of social information (Yong and Li 2018). Social media, in particular, social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, capitalizes on our tendency to assume that all social information is important. The vast amount of readily available social information on social media triggers people’s evolved psychology to attend to such information and can cause social media users to spend copious amounts of time on social media. For instance, a study found that students spent more time observing content on Facebook rather than actually posting content (Pempek et al. 2009), thus suggesting that social media sites feed people’s need to monitor social information.
Because of the need to rely on others for survival, early humans evolved to instinctively forge ties with others, and the careful (and successful) maintenance of strong ties was also likely possible given the small population of an ancestral village (approximately 100–230 people; Dunbar 1992). Thus, the need to belong and build relationships can motivate people’s social media use (Nadkarni and Hofmann 2012). Social media sites enable users to form new friendships, maintain existing relationships, and interact with other people in a wide variety of ways with unprecedented convenience. As such, Facebook users aged 18–24 years old have, on average, more “friends” than an ancestral person would have encountered in an entire lifetime (Blease 2015). Due to the large size of online social networks, the ties between social media users and most of their connections are typically latent (i.e., individuals only have passing awareness of each other) or weak (i.e., individuals only seek each other occasionally for information or other forms of trivial support; Ellison et al. 2011). Yet, we likely evolved to treat our large but weak online social networks with as much attention as ancestral humans would have given their strong but small social networks. Thus, the amount of effort put into maintaining a social network of the size faced by our ancestors may have been more manageable than that faced by modern humans, causing social media users to spend an unnecessarily substantial amount of time and effort upkeeping their online connections.
Social media also capitalizes on our evolved need for social validation. Social media sites often incorporate the use of “like” buttons as a means for users to quickly provide social feedback. Because such likes directly reflect social approval, people can rely on likes to monitor their inclusionary status and how socially accepted they are. A study that experimentally manipulated the number of likes received by participants for a personal photograph found that people who received a greater number of likes reported higher levels of self-esteem (Burrow and Rainone 2017). The ostensible display of the number of followers one has also serves as another proxy for social inclusion and popularity. This is further glorified by Instagram’s coveted “blue tick,” which is usually conferred to users with a substantial amount of followers and influence, such as celebrities, influencers, and politicians.
One commonly cited reason for the extensive use of social media is the “fear of missing out” (FOMO; Przybylski et al. 2013), which is defined as a preoccupation over whether others might be having rewarding experiences in one’s absence. As such, people can feel compelled to stay connected on social media to find out what others are doing. This apprehension is arguably indicative of the social monitoring system at work, whereby social media users constantly monitor for cues to social inclusion or social exclusion from network acquaintances. FOMO has been found to be associated with the activation of the right middle temporal gyrus, a brain region involved in the processing of social inclusion cues (Lai et al. 2016), thus suggesting that individuals are on the lookout as to whether they are still included in their social groups.
The foregoing analysis shows that our proclivity toward social media use and vulnerability to overuse can be understood within the context of our evolved psychology to socially belong and monitor for social information. As opposed to other theories that implicate addiction or other forms of psychopathology, the evolutionary perspective instead suggests that because social media exploits common features of normal human psychology, obsessive social media use can also occur in well-adjusted, psychologically healthy individuals, thus accounting for its widespread contemporary use.
Harmful Outcomes of Social Media Use
The evolutionary approach can also be used to shed light on the harms that may emerge from excessive social media activity and why, despite these harms, people still persist in using social media.
Through comments or likes, social media presents users with opportunities to quickly gauge social approval. However, people who post content on social media are exposed to both the possibility of receiving many likes as well as the possibility of receiving very few or no likes at all. As people tend to be more sensitive to negative information, social media users can inadvertently be more affected by not having enough likes compared with having enough likes, resulting in poorer mood and lowered self-esteem (Burrow and Rainone 2017). The desire to gain likes and other positive feedback may also prompt an obsession with the sharing of content that leads to unhealthy self-image, such as photographs of oneself in skimpy clothing or engaging in sensational or scandalous activity, which may garner more attention (Chua and Chang 2016).
Social media can also induce envy and self-dissatisfaction in users due to social comparison. As social media users tend to carefully select and curate the things they upload on social media platforms, social media tends to portray only the most perfect aspects of people’s lives, such as flattering photographs, nice holidays, and work success (Siibak 2009). Our evolved psychological tendency to crave and digest social information takes the information we see on social media seriously and makes us compare ourselves to those we see on social media. As social media sites continually present information about how good-looking others are or how well others are doing, avid social media users are apt to experience envy and dissatisfaction with various aspects of their own lives (Yong and Li 2018).
By being a source of more information than people are evolved to need, social media can also trigger excessive jealousy. Increased Facebook use has been found to be associated with elevated jealousy due to a feedback loop, whereby using Facebook exposes people to ambiguous information about their partner that they may otherwise not have known, which then motivates further use to seek more information that may be unwittingly self-confirming (Muise et al. 2009). Texts on social media are often ambiguous because they are devoid of emotional cues. For instance, a neutral message left by a man on a woman’s public post on Facebook, such as “hey how r u,” can be misinterpreted to be more flirtatious than it really is by the woman’s jealous partner.
People still persist in their use of social media despite its deleterious effects. From an evolutionary mismatch perspective, this is unsurprising because social media represents a modern stimulus that efficiently hijacks our evolved psychological mechanisms, which are adapted to respond to stimuli in ancestral conditions (Li et al. 2018). Just as how our tastes for sweet things, which evolved to adaptively impel humans to eat fruits and other natural foods high in calories and nutrients, are now inducing people to ingest modern foods manufactured with high levels of sugars (e.g., candy bars, soda), likewise modern humans cannot help but continue responding to social media in the ways that they do, to their own detriment.
The use of social media in the modern world can be a puzzling phenomenon, especially if we consider that people continue to use and participate in social media activity despite its negative effects. The evolutionary approach, which considers how social media hijacks our evolved psychology for social belonging and monitoring, can facilitate a better understanding of the widespread use and effects of social media. This awareness of the fundamental mechanisms that underlie social media use can encourage future research on the factors that may regulate excessive social media use, such as users’ social media network size or other offline activities that may engage people’s need to belong in relatively healthier ways.
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