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Is Black Mirror Right to Worry About Social Media? We Talked to Cyber-Psychologists to Find Out

By Abigail Chandler on at

Netflix today brings us six more standalone tales from Charlie Brooker’s deliciously paranoid brain. Black Mirror is back, tackling topics including social media, video games, online hate and, erm, Nordic Noir.

Social media has played a heavy part in all of the Black Mirror films, but the first film of the new season, Nosedive, is the most explicitly social media-focused one yet. Starring Jurassic World’s Bryce Dallas Howard, it takes place in a near-future world where the entire social hierarchy is built around the likes you have received online. Want to get that promotion at work? You’d better have an average rating of at least four stars. The episode takes our modern day drive for Likes to the next level.

What with people literally dying to get the perfect selfie, you might be forgiven for thinking that the reality of social media is already like something out of a bleak speculative fiction movie. But is social media really as damaging to our psyches as the media – and Black Mirror – would have us believe? We spoke to two leading cyber-psychologists to find out.

Social media offers a unique opportunity to reinvent yourself. But, as Dr Chris Fullwood of the University of Wolverhampton tells us, most people present an online self that’s much the same as their offline self. “[F]or most people I think [social media is] more about a discovery of the true self or working towards an ideal self, a person they would like to be rather that someone they’re trying to portray.”

Dr Fullwood, a psychologist who specialises in online impression management, stresses that this creation of an idealised self pre-dates the internet by quite some way. Social media psychologist Dr Ciarán McMahon agrees. “There’s always going to be a certain amount of discrepancy between how we see ourselves and how we actually are to ourselves... a slight discrepancy between those two images is fairly normal, a wide discrepancy is a little bit more problematic. Social media has simply made that distinction between the idealised self and the real self an awful lot easier to see.”

And that’s one of the things that the media loves to obsess over – just what damage is this gap between the idealised online self and the flawed real self doing to the poor, innocent psyches of young people? Well, not as much as you might think. Experimentation with identity is a normal part of growing up, and social media just makes it more visible. Dr Fullwood explains, “People who have a more autonomous personality, they might be quite happy to present a version of themselves online that’s very consistent with their offline self because they’re content with who they are. Whereas somebody who might be more sociotropic and reliant on other people to inform their sense of self, they might be more inclined to want to consider what other people are doing, to ‘keep up with the Joneses’... and incorporate that into self-presentation tactics.”

As in the Nosedive episode of Black Mirror, the online world is full of people who are simply more perfect than you – or at least appear to be. A certain element of competitiveness can creep in, especially because, as Dr McMahon points out, social media “makes people into their own publicist... And so it does mean that some people are going to succeed on social media simply by dint of the fact that they’re good at publicising themselves and other people aren’t.”

But the sheer number of people and opinions on social media can help to shape people’s personalities. “You might see the online world or online platforms as being a tool that people might use to try out different types of identity, different types of self expression,” Dr Fullwood says, “and the reactions that they get to those different types of self-expression tend to be incorporated ultimately into their self concept. So if they try out a version of themselves and it’s really received approvingly by other individuals, then that would make sense that that would then be incorporated into your own self concept.” So could social media create a generation of people-pleasers, like Bryce Dallas Howard’s Lacie in Nosedive? Or is it no different to people trying to find their best-fit personality in the offline world?

The problem with allowing social media to affect your sense of self is that we users simply don’t understand the algorithms that power it. We don’t understand why one post gets tonnes of likes one day, and a similar post is utterly ignored the next day. “[Y]ou now have absolutely no idea how many people are going to see your content, which means you’re going to get a completely random feedback,” Dr McMahon says. “It’s like a slot machine psychology, you’re going to keep pulling the lever... once the feedback is random then people will keep clicking the button. And that means you don’t know how it works so you keep submitting it, you keep putting things up, but it can be frustrating because you don’t know how it works.”

(Which sounds an awful lot like the offline world too...)

But for both Dr Fullwood and Dr McMahon, their overwhelming feeling towards social media is a positive one. It enables you to find your own peer group of people going through similar experiences to you, it allows you to experiment with your identity in a relatively safe environment and it helps you pin down the ideal version of yourself that you’re striving towards.

As for the presentation of social media as a dangerous, unregulated space – a presentation that Black Mirror side-steps, but which plenty of media embraces – Dr McMahon thinks that social media is simply “exposing and amplifying problems that already exists. Our problems around gender and around race haven’t simply re-emerged because social media was invented – they just never went away.”

Both cyber-psychologists agree that social media companies need to take responsibility for abuses that take place on their platforms, and that there is still a long way to go in terms of regulating that. But, on the whole, they think social media gets a bad rep. “To be honest an awful lot of the time the conversations that you see in newspapers and on television about social media, they’re conversations which are incredibly out of date,” Dr Mc Mahon says. “I hate to be ageist, but when I see middle-aged people talking about social media I think for the most part they’re completely out of touch with what is actually happening, and what is realistic for young people who are using social media.”

Black Mirror doesn’t fall into the trap of viewing social media as evil, but it does look at what constantly having to publicise yourself online can do to a person. Charlie Brooker has taken a step back from his own use of social media, presumably for the same reason. Perhaps Nosedive is a very personal rant for him, and it dips into an emerging field of psychology. It looks like season three is going to be just as uncomfortably close to the bone as the first two seasons.

But hopefully not as prescient as that whole pig-gate thing.