The DMU psychologist addresses online abuse in a BBC documentary

More research needs to be done on how social media use affects our well-being and behaviour, particularly when dealing with online trolls, says a psychologist at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU).

dr Emma Short took part in the BBC documentary Social media, anger and us with comedian David Baddiel. It followed him as he met people who have experienced online abuse, including a family with millions of followers on TikTok whose home was burned down in an arson attack.

David Baddiel, who has himself experienced hate online, analyzed the tweets he received, did an MRI scan to see how his brain interprets trolling, and went “cold turkey” by leaving Twitter for a fortnight.

Before and after his two-week experiment, he spoke to Dr. Short to see if there was a difference in his anxiety and wellbeing. His responses indicated that the hiatus from Twitter had made him calmer, more relaxed, and sleeping better.

dr Short said: “The truth is we really don’t know enough about how social media affects us. However, what we have seen in the documentary is that the negative effects are felt very quickly and can have significant well-being implications.

“Some research suggests that social media addiction is a phenomenon, and David described himself as ‘addicted’ to Twitter, spending hours a day scrolling and reading the news.

“It was interesting to see the difference in his answers to questions about anxiety and sleep quality in just two weeks. However, the concept of complementing social media is debated and should be treated with caution.”

Emma and David 1

dr Short explained the psychological “boost” someone gets when their post is seen and shared.

She added: “The person posting is recognized by a large number, often reaching far beyond their own personal network and gaining new followers, this can be found to be hugely empowering. We experience an immediate sense of expanding societal influence and a sense of being part of the fast moving current of a societal trend.

“However, it is widely recognized that the online environment presents conditions where expression is often more unrestrained, the sense of invisibility even when the poster is not anonymous, loosens the restrictions on expression we may have in social exchanges outside of the feel the net.

“Thus, should our posts be widely shared, reactions to our posts can be both positive and negative, with unprecedented levels of support or abuse. So while the social and psychological gains are significant, social media can also infuse us with levels of aggression that can be unsettling and frightening.”

The use of social media accounts and the impact they have on us and society more broadly is a research area that is rapidly developing in an interdisciplinary manner.

Members of the Psychology and Technology Research Cluster at DMU are currently designing research projects focused on trolling and cyber-aggression to contribute to this growing field of knowledge.

Posted on Wednesday February 16th, 2022

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