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Author shares ‘The Happiness Effect’ research

and | Wednesday, November 15, 2017

In an online world dominated by likes, follower ratios and habitual posting, are college students becoming slaves to their Snapchat streaks?  

Author Donna Freitas addressed this question Tuesday in a lecture on her book “The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost.” Freitas explored how students use social media to construct an identity, navigate the world, create relationships with peers and build connections with professionals.  Through her research, she has come to find that in this process, college-aged students are experiencing a disconnect from authentic happiness. 

“It’s like a bad boyfriend,” Freitas said.  “You know [social media] is bad for you, but you can’t help going back to it.”

As part of her research, Freitas visited 13 different colleges and universities across the United States and surveyed 900 students through online essays.  In their answers, most students said they felt pressured to appear perfect, successful and happy in every way. They said it was taboo to post complaints, attempts to garner sympathy and political or religious affiliations — anything that might be construed as negative or controversial.  In Freitas’ online survey, 73 percent of students responded “yes” to the statement: “I try always to appear happy/positive with anything attached to my real name.”

“The appearance of happiness is placed above your actual happiness,” Freitas said.

The professionalization of Facebook has made users much more aware of their “audiences” — ranging from close friends and family, to college admissions offices, to potential employers. Freitas said this high-stakes environment has forced users to spend an unreasonable amount of time and effort on deciding what is appropriate content to post.  In her study, Freitas found that some students adhered to posting during “high-traffic times” for optimal exposure and religiously followed the “three C’s of social media” — crafting a post, curating a brand and cultivating an audience.

“Your real name is a brand that you are responsible to promote and protect,” she said.  “You’re like a mini company. The reputation of your name is the reputation of your brand.”

These carefully created online identities have changed the way college students experience the world.  Freitas said one of her subjects, a “beautiful, intelligent sorority vice president” under the pseudonym “Emma,” was extremely frustrated with this new reality.

“People used to do things and then post them, and the approval you gained from whatever you were putting out there was a byproduct of the actual activity,” Emma said in her interview with Freitas.  “Now the anticipated approval is what’s driving the behavior of the activity.”

Freitas presented the smartphone as a social media delivery system in which hits of self-esteem, or hits to the self-esteem, are always available.  This non-stop feedback loop has made users feel they also must always be “on,” no matter the situation or time of day, keeping some people scrolling through timelines well into the night.  Freitas said the line between using social media and being used by it is ever-blurring.

In her research, Freitas said she found many students attempted to cope with this oppressive cycle through various means — social media sabbaticals, periods of unplugging, Wi-Fi free spaces and using anonymous accounts for true expression.  

“People are seeking freedom from the compulsion of their phones,” Freitas said.

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