Technology, Culture, & Emotional Intelligence

Social Contagion

This is what happens when we are constantly exposed to the manufactured facsimiles of other people’s social lives.

Cholla Cactus at South Mountain

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Photo by Diego Lozano / Unsplash

I am fascinated by social media, aren’t you? Just last week I was in front of an audience of curious teachers in Arizona where we discussed what I like to call “the greatest social experiment of all time.” Let me lay it out for you like someone was planning out the last two decades:

  1. Step 1: We create a series of virtual platforms called “social media” which represent a brand new way to socially interact with other people — with absolutely zero limitations.
  2. Step 2: We make these virtual platforms accessible via content creation and consumption devices called “smartphones” which can fit into our pockets; allowing us to access and upload to these platforms from anywhere.
  3. Step 3: We create algorithms, notification systems, and world-class branding dedicated to continuously drawing people back to the platforms.
  4. Step 4: We take all of this — the creation of the world’s best coders, engineers, marketers, social psychologists — and we put it in the hands of 11-year-olds.

Then we step back and just see what happens.

Eventually, the experiment starts giving us results, and in the last year or so, the insights are starting to come in. Some researchers argue that the anxiety epidemic has been following the same linear trend as smartphone use among young people. A 2021 study combining the results of several global youth surveys found that “Pooled estimates obtained in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that 1 in 4 (25.2%) youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, while 1 in 5 (20.5%) youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms.” And perhaps most damning of all, Facebook’s own research (which it appears they tried to hide or at least delay) found that its platform Instagram has a measurably poor effect on the mental health of their users — particularly teenage girls.

The first president of Facebook, Sean Parker, has admitted to some of the problems caused by the social media network he helped to make a global powerhouse. “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.” He explained in a 2017 interview.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them . . . was all about: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? . . . And that means we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that will get you . . . more likes and comments. . . It’s a social validation feedback loop . . . exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”

One of the original employees of Instagram, Bailey Richardson, was interviewed after she deleted her social media accounts in 2018. Coming down from these lofty social media platforms, she reflected: “It feels like we’re all addicted to a drug that doesn’t get us high anymore.”

No wonder so many teens are taking breaks from social media, or even deleting their profiles altogether. As we continue to contend with the results of this experiment, I am still left with a question that we can answer now: why did the lure of social media work so well on us? Is there something we could have done to avoid social media’s effects? I believe at least part of the answer to these questions lies with an effect I call “social contagion.”

In the fall of 2020, Jessica Garza delivered a fascinating TED Talk called “How to avoid catching prickly emotions from other people.” She explores why emotions pass so easily between people, comparing these caught emotions to a plant called the “Jumping Cholla” (pictured above). If you touch this prickly cousin of the cactus, the part you touch breaks off and sticks to your skin. When you try to remove it, it breaks into smaller pieces and burrows further into your skin. Sounds unpleasant right?

Just like “Jumping Cholla” There have been multiple studies showing how easily emotions, habits, and lifestyle choices can be passed from one person to another. Each of us is often subconsciously influenced by the choices of our family, friends, and even the friends of our friends. Let me give you a couple of examples:

In one study, researchers “found that study participants were 75 percent more likely to become divorced if a friend is divorced and 33 percent more likely to end their marriage if a friend of a friend is divorced.” Simply knowing someone who knows someone who got divorced is enough to increase your likelihood by a third!

In another study, “researchers found that when a person becomes obese, the chances that a friend will become obese increases by 57 percent. Siblings of obese people have a 40 percent increased risk of obesity, and their spouses' risk increased by 37 percent.” This study was even more fascinating as proximity was not a factor. While discussing their findings, James Fowler, one of the study's authors and an associate professor of political science at the University of California San Diego noted, “We were stunned to find that friends who live hundreds of miles away have just as much impact as friends who are next door.”

Not only is the effect of social contagion felt in divorce rates and obesity rates, but I also think it explains why social media has become such a powerful force of raw emotion. We are constantly exposed to others, or rather the manufactured facsimiles of what they want us to believe about them. As we watch their lives and hear their opinions we often take on their emotions, leading often to dire consequences for us and those we come in contact with later.

Luckily, there is a way to avoid taking on the emotions of others, and you won’t be surprised to learn that it’s a social and emotional learning skill. It’s called “self-awareness.” A strong sense of self-awareness allows an individual to ground themselves in their own emotions rather than taking on the emotions of those around them.

We’ll take a look at what self-awareness on social media looks like next week.


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Jamie Larson