What your social media activities really say about you

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    What do your social media posts, likes, comments, views, searches, scrolling, etc., say about you? Experts usually break down social media users’ activities into one of two categories – active or passive. But a new study at Washington University in St. Louis is changing that.

    ­­“Suggesting a new way to better understand social media use,” said Alison Tuck, first author of the study and PhD candidate in clinical psychology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “Social media and mental health and well-being – this is something that people have been interested in for quite some time. The closest the field has really gotten is passive versus active social media use, which there’s very little consensus about exactly how to measure passive versus active use. Maybe there’s just more to it than that!”

    So, the work began.  Tuck teamed up with co-author Renee J. Thompson, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Emotion and Mental Health Lab. The study involved a series of steps that involved coding, big data and surveys with study participants.

    “What surprised us the most was that active versus passive social media use really did not seem like the way to classify this data,” said Tuck. “When the data came back, we were able to analyze it, apply some fancy statistics and long story short is that there are ultimately four different categories of social media use.”

    The “Social Media Use Scale” emerged from the WashU study as a new tool to evaluate social media use. The scale has four categories for social media activities that provide insights about users’ behavior traits and personality. First on the list, the belief-based category of social media use.

    “Belief-based social media use seems to be all about using social media to feel or reaffirm negative beliefs. So, this is where we’re seeing things like doom scrolling, actively looking up and engaging with content that you disagree with, or that you find negative,” Tuck explained. “It could also be posting about something that you disagree with or is negative. So, this is where we’re seeing a lot of those behaviors that we think are associated with using social media to get kind of riled up.”

    Then, there’s consumption-based use.

    “That’s where we’re seeing a lot of our scrolling, watching videos, looking at memes. It’s consuming. It’s using social media to consume.”

    And next, image-based social media use.

    “Trying to make a favorable social image on social media or monitoring the social image that you may be making. The theme is that it seems to be activities that are really caught up in what you look like on social media.”

    Lastly, there’s comparison-based use.

    “It’s all about using social media to compare yourself to others or to your own past. That’s where we’re seeing people saying things like they’re using social media to compare their life or experiences to other people’s, to compare their bodies to other people’s,” Tuck said. “What I thought was interesting, was also people reporting that they’re using social media to look at their own past experiences to reminisce about their past. So, to remember that vacation that they took a couple of years ago when it was bright and sunny, and now it’s December and they’re miserable.”

    The scale can be used to analyze behaviors on any social media platform that allows users to create profiles, connect with other users, and view lists of connected users, such as Facebook, Instagram, X (formerly Twitter),  Snapchat, Reddit, Instagram and TikTok.

    “What we’re trying to do is help people understand how they are using social media with the ultimate goal being how can we start helping people engage in healthier versus less healthy types of social media use.”

    Tuck says it’s important to continue investigating the different types of social media use and she’s already started a new study.

    “Now we are really starting to look at when we tell people to engage in each of these four types of use, how do their emotions change,” she said. “But it also told us a lot about what these four different types of social media use are associated with. So, for example, belief-based social media use is associated with lower life satisfaction.”

    “We are starting to ask questions about – how are people specifically using these four different types of social media to influence their emotions” And so, we’re really just starting to set the foundation, lay the groundwork for being able to ask these more advanced questions.”