Written by: Dr. Julijana Cicović Maslovar, psychologist

Ever since I started thinking about the entitled subject matter, I found myself faced with the age-old dilemma “which is older, a chicken or an egg?”

Have social networks led to an aggravation in the mental health of the general population, or have they emerged out of existing pathology and exposed that reality? Probably the rational explanation should be sought more in perceiving causal connections rather than in the one-way sway.

Social networks are expanding at such a rate that it is difficult to carry out a research that would monitor their impact, so that science does not get clear answers to many questions.

The research findings suggested that excessive use of social networks leads to anxiety, depression, stress, and chronic fatigue, while others found out that long-term abstinence from the use of social networks does not lead to improvement of the mentioned indications among people who suffer from them.

The abovementioned pathology, was on the rise even before the development of social networks, which certainly did not help improve, if they did not deepen it. In the absence of the relevant knowledge, in the following text I will look back at how I comprehend the functioning of social networks and outline some of the “psychological traps” that they, potentially, entail.

With respect to all said, it can be useful to look back at the beginnings of the development of social networks. It all began in 2004 when Mark Zuckerberg and some of his colleagues created the “Face Smash” platform, intending to entertain

and connect Harvard students! The meaning of the name of the platform (Face – Smash – smash, forcibly smash to pieces), soon acquired another, colloquial meaning, with a sexual implication, placing the game “Hot or Not” (Hot – “hot, hot, hot” or No …- Translator’s note.) in which young men from Harvard, reacted to photos of their female colleagues by judging how attractive their physical appearance was, and a little later, in 2011 with a new game “Smash or Pass” in which teenagers reacted to photos on way to declare themselves with “Smash” (smash, knockdown – ‘t/n’) if you would like “casual” sex with that person or “Pass” if you would rather bypass it. Do you also have certain discomfort while reading!?

If we neglect this sadistic-misogynistic motivation, the question arises, why did the students of one university campus, regardless how spacious, in 2004 have to connect through the virtual world. Was it already a world of deeply alienated and lonely individuals, who, either out of fear of contact and intimacy or because they were largely passive about a certain way of life, had difficulty reaching for others in real life?

I believe that these “shrewd guys” recognized the need, perhaps due to their frustrations and projections. I also believe that big business magicians, who quickly saw the possibility of multiplying zeros on their accounts by investing in the development of social platforms, have had great help from those who know our basic psychological needs well, such as the need to contact other people, the need for acceptance, recognition by others, and belonging, as well as the state of the world in which these needs are frustrated. It is precisely these needs that they manipulate with today.

The question is why have we so easily and quickly agreed to meet these needs through the virtual world, to have social networks and communication through them, immersed deep in our lives and largely replace the living human contact? Perhaps the answer lies in the ease they offer!? And, of course, the addiction they create! The pleasure generated by each contact with a human being, every form of communication, is in reality achieved much more slowly and requires much more effort and time than through social platforms. In real life we are unlikely to get hundreds of positive comments on our new look, few will publicly praise us for speaking at a conference or passing on some good quote, or we will get hundreds of congratulations for going to our freshman school. Reactions on social networks are fast and we get instant satisfaction, and our brain secretes certain substances

more quickly that encourage a sense of satisfaction. So many reactions can create the appearance of importance and value. However, aside from that momentary pleasure, online interactions lack the quality of contact that “nurtures” us and our mental health, and when alone we can feel even more isolated and lonely. Likewise, at least a part of us knows that the value we can ascribe to ourselves, encouraged by these reactions, will not pass the test of reality.

Posting on social networks or posting our photos constantly carries a dose of unpredictability. We do not know what reactions of others will awaits us, so we are, as with slot machines, constantly waiting for the possible desired outcome, which prompts us to check the network again and again and follow the reactions of others. This is exactly the joker that the owners of social platforms play on – to stimulate psychological desire. The more likes, desired reactions, the greater the satisfaction, and after that the greater the need for more, then for more … A familiar pattern of each addiction!

When we get negative feedback, the craving for a corrective experience is just as great. If this desired experience does not come, there is a risk (the younger the person and the less experienced in real life, the greater the risk) of doubting how much he is worth, how much he is accepted, loved, which can finally define someone’s self- image and provoke feelings of anxiety and inferiority.

It is true that this space, deprived of direct exposure and face-to-face contact with other shy and insecure people, brought liberation and the opportunity for easier communication.

Smartphones, which we do not separate from and the ease of access to social platforms, can serve as protection against discomfort, when we find ourselves in an unfamiliar or unpleasant social situation in reality, especially with young people. Psychology speaks about a similar function (the so-called “transitional object”) that a teddy bear or similar toy can have for a three-year-old when he goes to kindergarten and is separated from his parents for the first time. This parallel may seem inappropriate to you, but such behaviors reflect emotional immaturity.

It is similar to the tendency of some individuals to “join” the network whenever they experience something uncomfortable, some painful emotion and share it with

“friends” or seek for what their experience is if that discomfort arises from some social context.

How good is it for mental health? It is true that the current escape from the uncomfortable context into the virtual world will calm the discomfort, or that the current “ventilation” of feelings through online reactions will bring relief, but it also prevents us from staying with our experience, awareness, and analysis, and thus learn something about ourselves and develop more mature mechanisms of self-regulation and control of our experiences, and to deal with similar situations more constructively in the future.

Social networks have given us a huge space for free expression of our opinions, beliefs,thoughts. I don’t know if the creators could have suspected (or had the intention) that they were giving us a “Pandora’s box”? The virtual space of social networks in our society (I believe that it is not significantly different elsewhere) has turned into a scene of very aggressive and vulgar opposition of attitudes and opinions. All those frustrations and dissatisfactions that we did not address in real-time and to real addresses flare-up on social networks. Being in this virtual world, without direct contact with another person, seems to free us from responsibility. Here, as individuals and as a society, we show ourselves to be immature. And if social networks are designed to provoke our impulsive reactions, we are the ones who must wave our hands.

And finally, I think that the greatest risk of abusing the social networks is a decrease in intellectual abilities, which will only, perhaps, be shown among generations to come. What is perhaps the goal!? The limitation in the format of this text does not allow me to further elaborate on this thesis, and I risk classifying myself as a conspiracy theorist, given that you have probably already got the impression that I do not find much good in social networks. You’re partly right, though I’ll agree, probably like most users, that they’ve brought a lot of good stuff. They are a great tool for meeting new and connecting with old friends; notification of significant events; for the promotion of new business and presentation and advertising in general, as well as for the exchange of information and opinions. Thanks to them, many good initiatives and ideas have been spread.

We must all be aware that we have no control over them, no matter how much they seem to offer us tools to adjust our taste and desire. Artificial intelligence, FB

algorithms, and similar machines are hard to outwit. But what we have under control is our behavior.

Anyone can measure the time they spend on social networks, monitor the impact they have on them as an individual, and react accordingly.

If nothing else, we can turn off notifications and we don’t have to be like Pavlov’s dog (you know that experiment on conditioning, about that dog whose spittle gets into his mouth every time he hears the sound of a bell !?).

And let’s not forget, everything we post on the social networks stays as a permanent trace, like a fingerprint! It would be good to ask yourself every time before we post or comment on something: “Do I want someone important to me to read this in a few years!?”

This article was brought to you with the financial support of the European Union and the National Endowment for Democracy. The content is the sole responsibility of the authors and editors of the Media Institute of Montenegro and does not necessarily reflect the views of the benefactors.