Has virtual recognition superseded our past needs?

According to research by B2X, millennials will spend approximately seven years on their phones (The Smartphone and IoT Consumer Trends Study, 2017). For many of us, the majority of that time is spent on social media.

Inextricably entwined in the depths of social media is the notion of external validation and recognition. Curators of Instagram, Facebook and the like have made it quite impossible to use these platforms without becoming fixated on the validation and recognition they can provide.

This addiction can be explained through Eric Berne's concept of 'strokes'. As psychiatrist and creator of Transactional Analysis, Berne believed that the process in which infants desire physical contact (aka 'strokes'), can be applied to adults too. For adults, however, these 'strokes' do not have to be physical; in lieu of physical stimulation adults substitute it for some other kind of recognition, whether that be symbolic, verbal, gesticulative, or perhaps even digital.

These strokes can be positive (a hug, smile or compliment), or negative (a shove, frown or insult), but in the desperation of what Berne has termed ‘recognition-hunger’, any stroke, positive or negative, is better than none. Psychologically speaking, it seems feeling insulted or dejected is better than feeling invisible, unimportant or rejected.

In this digital age, it appears many of us have replaced the need for physical contact or recognition with the virtual recognition we now so frequently receive from distant friends, or even strangers, online.

But can the click of the like button really be as affirming as a genuine smile from a stranger? Are we losing a part of ourselves and our inherent capacity to be social creatures in substituting physical interactions for these intangible strokes?


In the book Why Social Media is Ruining Your Life, Katherine Ormerod reveals some disturbing claims about social media and mental health:

  1. “Just one hour a day on social networks reduces the probability of a teenager being happy by around 14 percent.”
  2. “Teens 'overusing' social media with five hours or more of daily engagement were 70 percent more likely to have suicidal thoughts or actions…”
  3. “Over social media's lifetime in the UK there's been a rise of self-poisoning by girls of 50%, an increase in hospital admissions for self-harm among girls by 68%, and a 400% increase in girls being treated in hospital for cutting themselves.”

It seems that there is a clear and strong correlation between social media and mental health related issues, particularly for teenage girls.

So, aside from our naïve attempts at replacing human connection with digital recognition, what exactly is so damaging about social media?

We often like to use the argument that scrolling through social media viewing real people is no worse, and if anything more informative, than what the rest of society does in consuming fictional lives in a TV show, movie or when reading a book.

But there is a fundamental, and often overlooked, difference: people aren’t always conscious of the fact that what they are seeing on social media is not real nor attainable.

What has become the problem then, is that people are creating these unrealistic, fictional lives on social media and staging them as reality. Whereas people know the books they are reading and shows they are watching are pure fiction, many people are understandably fooled by the actuality of what they see on social media. This is particularly the case for young, impressionable girls, for whom the artificial and touched-up material seen on social media becomes the measure of normal and reality. They begin to expect that for themselves, and when they, inevitably, can’t reach that measure of illusory perfection, they begin to question and even dislike themselves, experiencing lower self-esteem and happiness in general.

Like a Dementor from the world of Harry Potter, social media possesses the power to drain the peace, happiness and hope of all who enter its realm. The happiness that is seeping out however, is so slow and steady that we barely seem to notice it. What is more noticeable is the immediate gratification we receive from it; the boredom that is momentarily eased; the security that is artificially felt and the recognition (strokes) that is insincerely and ineffectually given.

This is not to say social media should be abolished - there are, of course, many great things about it. But it pays to reconsider what it is we are turning to social media for, and how conscious we are of the power it can negatively exert over our ever-susceptible minds.

Abi Crossland-Otter is a trainee counsellor and author. (And millennial.)