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One in five Canadians don’t go more than eight hours without checking the internet. Photo: Rame Abdulkader/The Fulcrum

How media saturation impacts mood, socialization, and empathy

Fifteen years ago, now infamous Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launched a social network that allowed people from all over the world to instantaneously connect with one another: Facebook. That was just the beginning. 

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the 24-hour news cycle — every day, we’re bombarded with information, regardless of whether we search, watch or listen. It becomes our job to untangle it all.

This concept is something that is harder now than ever before to get a grip on, thanks to the rapid growth of the technology and the world wide web.

Media saturation is an umbrella term that is used to classify all the ways in which we consume our content. This can range from scrolling through Facebook for the 10th time or watching relatable Tik Toks or even consuming general news. 

“Media saturation is a way to refer to the abundance of media in our lives from multiple social media accounts to television, video games, instant messaging,” said psychologist Dana Klisanin in an email to the Fulcrum. 

According to a 2019 report conducted by the CIRA (Canadian Internet Registration Authority), one in five Canadians, “haven’t gone more than eight hours without getting their online fix.”

Internet friends

In 2007, Apple released its first portable mobile device, the iPhone 2G, which became the “fastest-selling gadget in the world.” News, music, social networks were suddenly accessible in the palms of our hands, anywhere, anytime. 

The upside to being a consumer of media is that we stay informed. According to a survey conducted in 2019, at least 16 per cent of people get their news from Facebook, while 41 per cent get their news from traditional news sources. 

Joshua Greenberg, a communications professor at Carleton University, said he believes that it can be positive to share thoughts about the things that are happening around us.

“I am a firm believer in the social and psychological benefits of conversation,” said Greenberg. “There is something intellectually valuable about exchanging ideas and asking questions about current affairs from a wide range of people in your life.” 

In the same vein, media saturation also has the potential to provide access to online communities of millions of people, something we didn’t have before. There is now an endless number of Facebook groups, subreddits, and Twitter hashtags that allow us to connect and intertwine with strangers who share our niche interests from across the globe.

The unexpected death of the basketball icon Kobe Bryant is an example of how rapidly online communities can come together. These communities may have given people a sense of comfort to know they were not alone, and also provided an outlet to grieve someone they had never met, according to Klisanin. 

“It is normal to mourn the loss of our heroes — in this case of Kobe Bryant,” said Klisanin. “Perhaps the time we spend scrolling through posts and reading comments is a form of communal grieving.” 

While online communities can bring out our more empathic side, the constant exposure to tragic events that is a consequence of a media-saturated online landscape may be impacting our ability to empathize in a negative way.

“In an era of global communication, we are inundated with images of tragedy and suffering: droughts, famines, wildfires and wars, all often occurring in distant places,” said Greenberg.  “Increasingly, these events are occurring simultaneously, which blunts not just our capacity to understand … but also our capacity for empathy.”

I read the news today, oh boy

Our mental health is something that is affected by many variables, such as our environment, the people around us, and even the weather. But our constant consumption of media plays a major role in our mental health. 

When addressing mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety, the approach is different for everyone. The roots, symptoms, and severities of depression, for example, vary from person to person. However, research shows that depression can be one of the main effects of avid social media usage. 

The term “Facebook Depression” was coined in 2015 in an article published in the Review of General Psychology, which showed that users who were spending “excessive amounts of time” on their social media started to show depression-like symptoms. Isolation, withdrawal, and loss of interest are just some of the symptoms that are correlated with depression. 

It was revealed in the same study that people who have spent more time talking about their problems online had a harder time discussing their problems offline.

In the late nineties, a similar research experiment was conducted by Robert Kraut which was published in 1998 by the American Psychologist Association. The research suggested that there were “fewer social bonds” with people who spent most of their time on the internet than people who socialized face to face. Kraut suggested this was linked to the internet’s anonymity: people who spent their time online interacted with complete strangers and knew who their “offline” friends were.

Media can similarly feed into anxiety, particularly when we share posts or pictures on social media and patiently await our friends’ responses. 

Isaac Nahon-Serfaty, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa, says that we may have developed an addiction in searching for satisfaction online.

“There’s a bit of addiction about what we share,” said Nahon-Serfaty. “We always look for approval, we need approval.”

In their book, Plugged In: How Media Attract and Affect Youth, authors Jessica Taylor Piotrowski and Patti look at the role that social media plays in our lives. They also provide insight into a few of consequences directed towards our mental health. 

Piotrowski and Valkenburg write that two main factors affect our self-esteem when we’re posting online. One is being in control “of our environment,” while the other is the approval that we crave from the people watching us. 

While scrolling on social media platforms, it’s easy to fall into the trap of creating fake ideals or unrealistic goals. Celebrities, athletes, or even friends who we think are having a better time than they likely are; we want to live their lives.

“Instead of spending time focused on other peoples’ lives, we need to recognize the importance of our own lives,” said Klisanin. “When we spend quality time with ourselves and others, we enrich our lives.”

The constant reminders of climate change, the wildfires in Australia, the political climate issues in the U.S. are just the tip of the iceberg of our anxiety levels. 

In a recent article by The Eyeopener, a Ryerson University student recalled that constantly worrying about environmental concerns such as the climate crisis was a mental burden, and this “eco-anxiety” has become increasingly popular in discussions about media saturation.

The world is troubled, but that doesn’t mean we have to be.

Time to unplug?

Nahon-Serfaty suggests that understanding the issues facing the world and discerning factual information from the disinformation might be helpful. 

“We need to understand issues and develop awareness to avoid this kind of anxiety,” he says, adding that thinking critically about the information we see is another way to focus on more relevant content.

Klisanin suggests taking time away from media consumption is another way to relieve ourselves. 

“Time is a precious resource,” she says. “Are we losing the opportunity to do something more interesting?” 

She also suggests developing skills, hobbies or personal interests that are beneficial to us rather than consuming digital content.

Professor Greenberg suggests that adopting an “omnivorous media diet” is something to consider.  He agrees that media is inescapable, but holds that that doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks from it.

“One shouldn’t spend all of their time only ever watching television, refreshing their Instagram feed,” he says. “Read a book, listen to a radio news show, go to the movies — these are also valuable, pro-social activities.”

In a world where events from halfway around the world can affect the way we think, act, and feel, it’s important to remain grounded.