This column first appeared in the December 1, 2019 PRINT edition of The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers:
The reasons people give for using social media often leave us scratching our heads.
In research, we refer to these “reasons” as motives. Seemingly endless lists of motives fill our academic journals. Reasons we say we use social media run the gamut from sharing updates and maintaining relationship to passing time and, well, pure apathy.
Before you ask, “how can apathy be a motivation,” consider the times you’ve used social media out of sheer boredom. When there’s nothing better to do, we light up our smartphones, and scroll and click away.
I sat in a doctor’s office for an hour a few weeks ago. If not for a smartphone, I may have been slightly more agitated by the delay. I’m not ashamed to say that passing time look over social media feeds served as a sort of pacifier.
Some respondents tell us they use social media out of habit. It’s a ritual. It’s the first thing they do in the morning, or maybe the last thing they see before going to sleep. It’s part of a daily routine.
Some claim that it’s a good habit to have because there’s a purpose to the activity. In other words, they go on social media because they have business to do, they know what apps they need to use, and they’re efficient (i.e., they get done what needs to be done in a short amount of time).
Some look at motives through the lens of a specific platform like Facebook or Twitter.
In a recent issue of the Journal of Social Media in Society, researchers Pavica Sheldon and Megan Newman explored the reasons why teens use Instagram.
Among the reasons, usual suspects like social interaction, self-promotion, and creativity emerged as leading motives why teens reported using the photo-sharing site. Regardless of age, these seem like reasons most of us would use Instagram.
But these teens also reported an excessive “reassurance-seeking” motive.
This motive included items like, “I often ask other people if they think that my clothes looks OK,” “I often ask people if I look attractive,” and “I often ask people if other people like me.”
When we read these statements, it’s probably easy to think of some adult friends who use it for the same reasons (even if they won’t admit it).
All reasons pale in comparison to the king of all motives: maintaining relationships. This is by far the most popular reason people give for using social media, and it makes nearly every list of every study.
But even that motive is bit little tricky. This is because we’re not entirely sure how respondents define the words “maintain” and “relationships.”
We might define those words differently depending on who we are (age, gender, life status, etc). For example, are we really maintaining relationships with people we haven’t see in 20 or 30 years simply because we occasionally like each other’s posts?
Maybe, but we’re certainly not cultivating the relationship. It doesn’t make the reason less valid, just a bit confusing when we lump those relationships in with close friends and family members.
Do you have different reasons for using social media than what’s listed here? Please share them with me and we’ll explore a few in future columns.
Dr. Adam C. Earnheardt is professor of communication studies the department of communication at Youngstown State University in Youngstown, OH, USA where he also directs the graduate program in professional communication. He researches and writes about communication and relationships, parenting and sports. He writes a weekly column for The Vindicator and Tribune-Chronicle newspapers on social media and society.