It is widely acknowledged that SMTs can influence an individual’s affective state. We say affective state here because we want to include the possibility that SMTs can have an effect on different affective states, like emotions and moods. Using SMT may cause an emotional reaction but it may also maintain or cause a particular mood. This could happen via an affective shift where one affective state shifts to another (Mitchell, 2021). It is possible to experience different kinds of affective shifts. One can change from one emotional state to another. An affective shift can also occur from emotion to mood, and conversely, from mood to emotion. For instance, reading an amusing social media post could diffuse into the mood of cheerfulness. Or, another social media post could shift an extant mood of anxiety into the emotion of fear. Depending on which affective state is involved and because different affective states have different durations, social medias’ effect can be short or long term. In what follows we will concentrate on emotions but this does not exclude the possibility that this has implications for other affective states, like moods.
Although SMTs influence users’ affective states, there has been little work done on how these effects are magnified by the hyperconnected contexts SMTs create. This is odd because the hyperconnected nature of SMTs is a key part of understanding why these technologies influence our emotional states so radically. SMTs connect us, but their emotional affordances involve network effects that compound the emotional effect of every post encountered. Grounded in the literature on affordances and emotions, we define emotional affordances as the relational properties of SMTs that are likely to induce an emotional state or emotion-related behavior, like the expression of a certain emotion or the reaction to the expressed emotional state of others.
SMTs have a number of emotional affordances, all of which have the potential to affect digital well-being.Footnote 23 In what follows, we explore four key emotional affordances of social media technologies: (1) expressible, (2) shareable, (3) consumable, and (4) evaluable. Each of these emotional affordances generate emotions and behaviour related to emotions that have a profound effect on digital well-being but do not contribute to eudaimonic well-being.
SMTs have a range of emotional affordances that make it quick, simple, and easy to express emotion, which makes expressing emotion more likely. To borrow a term from Jenny Davis's and James Chouinard’s framework mentioned above (2016), these design features “encourage” users to express themselves. Indeed, some of the design choices of the platform seem purposely intended to afford emotional reactions and expressions. For example, in 2016 Facebook expanded its infamous like-button. From this point onward, users could use a button with various emojis to express their love, laughter, sadness, and anger about a post. Currently there is even a “wow” emoji that lumps together emotions ranging from astonishment to awe.Footnote 24 Providing a limited option space of emotions that are available for expression is in itself interesting from the affordance perspective. Limiting the number of emotions that can be expressed affords a decision of which alternative best fits the emotional state. Oftentimes, however, emotions are not clear cut and do not fit neatly into a certain category.Footnote 25 Another important way that SMTs affords the expression of emotional reaction is that the threshold to express an emotion is very low. Part of the explanation is that most social media platforms are practically anonymous. So, to give vent to one’s feelings is only matter of reaching towards one’s trackpad or mobile device, particularly when it comes to the expression of negative emotions, like outrage (Brady & Crockett, 2019; Crockett, 2017).
Not only do the emotional affordances of SMTs make it easy to express emotion, these technologies feed their users a regular flow of highly emotive content to which many respond. This content, including content that depicts the emotions expressed by others, offer countless opportunities for emotional reactions. Because SMTs make expression so easy, users are often inclined to express their emotional reactions in response to an emotional expression by others (as we will also discuss in the next section). This can lead to virtuous or vicious cycles of highly emotional responses, quickly followed by a highly emotional counter-responses.
In addition to this, because much online communication is text based and words are limited, it affords the expression of emotions that lend themselves to brief textual expression.Footnote 26 Put differently, the design “demands” (Davis & Chouinard, 2016) that the user is brief and they “discourage” both expressing complex emotions and the complex expression of emotions. Complex or ambivalent emotions, like embarrassment or remorse, are harder to fit into the mold of word limits and image-based communication of SMT.Footnote 27 Doing justice to these complex emotions requires elaborate expressions that can cover the nuances and particulars of the mental states involved. The affordances of SMT, and their focus on easily expressed emotions, thus militate against eudaimonic WB because eudaimonic WB requires that we properly deliberate about our emotions and do not neglect complex or ambivalent ones.
Another implication of the emotional affordances of social media for eudaimonic WB has to do with the fact that social media encourages the presentation of a warped and somewhat unauthentic self-image, including the expression of unauthentic emotions, partly because SMT creates norms and expectations about what emotions to express. For instance, on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, there seems to be a norm to express positive emotions (Waterloo et al., 2018). The bias towards posting positive emotions may further exacerbate the social pressure not to feel negative, which is associated with a negative self-concept (Dejonckheere & Bastian, 2020). Indeed, recently researchers (Bailey et al., 2020) found that posting authentically on social media, instead of in an idealized fashion, leads to greater well-being and life satisfaction.
The design features of SMTs also afford sharing of another’s emotional content with ease. When it comes to sharing, both emotional affordances and behavioral affordances work together. For instance, the posts of other users can create an emotional reaction in us, particularly when they include emotive content. Because emotions motivate user to act, these emotionally evocative posts afford not only an emotional reaction but also actions, like the inclination to share or to instantly respond. SMTs have affordances that makes sharing easy. The design features of SMTs “encourage” sharing, for instance, with prominently displayed buttons. Similarly, push notifications afford sharing because they alert the user to potentially shareable content (or to others sharing content).
The way social media can afford both expression and sharing of emotions is important because users can affect other users with their emotions. This is known as emotional contagion. Because social media affords emotional sharing, and because the reach of social media is huge, it should come as no surprise that there is digital emotion contagion. Digital emotion contagion (Goldenberg & Gross, 2020) means that the emotion of someone perceiving an emotional expression online becomes more like the emotions of the user that posted emotional content.
We should consider “shareability” to be one of the most powerful emotional affordances that SMTs offer because emotional content spreads more quickly and easily than non-emotional content. Researchers found that when social media messages include emotional-moral terms, their spread increases substantially (Brady et al., 2017). Furthermore, users are more inclined to share content that triggers moral emotions, like outrage (Crockett, 2017, p. 20), and anger spreads faster and reaches more users than other emotions (Fan et al., 2020).Footnote 28
The combined effect of the affordances of expresssibility and shareability lead to constant exposure of emotional content online. This may have a negative impact on eudaimonic DWB. For instance, on the group or societal level emotional contagion could lead to an emotional atmosphere (Steinert, 2021) dominated by negative emotions. Because negative emotions motivate to avoid a perceived threat, this could motivate people to concentrate on less meaningful goals or goals that are opposed to their flourishing. This is likely not limited to user’s time social media because online and offline life cannot be neatly divided. Also, as current incidences, like the storm on the US Capitol, attest, people pursue their goals both online and offline.
It needs to be noted that sharing of emotions online can positively affect the sharer’s well-being, especially when there is a form of intimacy (Lomanowska & Guitton, 2016). For instance, emotional self-disclosure could lead to social support and stronger social connection, which are essential aspects of human flourishing. Nevertheless, because SMTs are geared towards simple sharing with one click, and because they limit responses to a number of words, this discourages a deeper and more meaningful response, and deep engagement with the emotions of others.
The emotional affordances of SMTs also facilitate the quick, easy, and convenient consumption of emotional content. Consider push notifications. These electronic reminders enable consumption of content by engaging the attention of users, even when these users are not using the device. Push notifications not only push content, but also pull the user out of whatever they are doing into the realm of social media. In other words, push notifications “request” (Davis & Chouinard, 2016) that users consume content.
Another design feature that lends itself to easy consumption is the default option to stay logged in. Here, the user is “encouraged” to stay logged in, which makes easier the consumption of the continual flow of online content. This is compounded by another ubiquitous design feature of today’s SMTs. These technologies provide visible (and prominent) metrics that are often regarded as central to user experience. Seeing the number of “likes,” “shares,” and “upvotes” creates another pull towards consumption of this content because users are typically interested in what other users find interesting. This can lead to a so-called “follow-the-crowd” phenomenon,Footnote 29 where content that has received a lot of attention receives ever more attention. This, in turn, means that this content is taken to be more credible or valuable by other users, which enhances shareability.
The combined power of affordances related to expression, sharing, and consumption work together to create a cycle where emotional content is expressed, consumed, then shared to be consumed by others. This can have implications for WB (see fn. 3 above). Take social comparison as an example here. For a targeted group of users, platforms like Instagram encourage uploading photos in a particular style or editing photos so that they comply with the dominant aesthetic language, encouraging users to present themselves in ways that the algorithm considers to be best.Footnote 30 On social media, users often encounter curated presentations of the life of other users, such as a constant stream of photographs depicting glamourous holidays, muscular bodies, and active social lives.Footnote 31 The comparison and mismatch between their own life and what they see online can lead to negative emotions. Studies indicate that being exposed to posts on social media like Facebook can lead to envy (Tandoc et al., 2015), depression (Steers et al., 2014), and has been found to generally reduce subjective well-being (Kross et al., 2013; Verduyn et al., 2015). Self-acceptance, which includes awareness and acceptance of strengths and weaknesses, is important for eudaimonic WB (Ryff & Singer, 2008). The constant comparisons facilitated by the affordances of SMT, and the negative emotions related to self-image that go along with it, do not support self-awareness and self-acceptance. This can stand in the way of self-realization and personal growth, both relevant for eudaimonic WB.Footnote 32 To summarize, for many users the negative emotions of social comparison do not help them in their pursuit of their values but merely paralyze them.
The design of today’s SMTs also create emotional affordances that are related to evaluation. Strategically placed “like” buttons, thumbs-up buttons, heart buttons, and emojis invite users to constantly evaluate content, in real-time. This can take the form of retweeting, liking, or upvoting.
People strongly respond to the number of “likes” they receive. Studies point out that receiving online recognition in the form of likes and other forms of approval engages the reward network of the brain. Rewarding the brain in this way, gives users a dopamine-laden high, which psychologists relate to positive feelings of elation and happiness. In a study where they scanned teenagers’ brains, Lauren Sherman and colleagues (Sherman et al., 2016) found that seeing a lot of likes for their own photos or photos of peers engages precisely the same circuits as eating chocolate.
The implementation of these addictive making evaluation mechanisms only underscores the hedonic outlook of SMTs. The above-mentioned metrics and follow-the-crowd phenomena (Sect. 4.3) only exacerbate the issue insofar as they also afford evaluation. Users engage more with the posts of other users when these posts have already gathered a lot of likes. For instance, in the study by Sherman and colleagues that we mentioned above, adolescents are more likely to endorse pictures that have many likes, compared to pictures that have only a few likes (Sherman et al., 2016). This behavior can be explained with processes like social influence bias, which can lead to herding effects (Muchnik et al., 2013), or, take what psychologists call “mirroring” (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999), that describes the process of unconsciously imitating other people. So, it is likely that knowing the emotions that others feel towards a certain post will affect how people feel towards it. However, this does not exclude other possibilities of why users engage with posts that already received a lot of attention from other people. For instance, the topic of the post may simply be of interest and is related to one’s concerns.
Here again, we witness the combined power of emotional affordances: sharing leads to more users viewing the content concerned, which in turn leads to more evaluations, which in turn leads to more views from others. All this is compounded by the effects of the algorithms that are routinely upvote emotional content.
The evaluative aspects of social media have multiple implications for DWB. In the clearest sense, being evaluated negatively or positively (or not receiving evaluation at all) can have hedonic implications. For instance, receiving negative evaluations or no evaluation at all, such as when a post is ignored and not shared by others, can leave one with negative emotions like shame, regret, or anger.
More importantly, affordances related to evaluation have implications for eudaimonic WB. For instance, being acknowledged online can be a cause of pride and can contribute to a positive self-image, which is an important aspect of eudaimonic WB. Furthermore, the praise one gets on social media can motivate to continue to pursue one’s meaningful life goals. In contrast, being very much attached to the opinions and acknowledgment of others can cause feelings of not being good enough when the acknowledgement falters. Ultimately, this could motivate to give up on some goal or activity of self-realization.
Another eudaimonic implication of the emotional affordances related to evaluations is that these affordances encourage a purely quantitative engagement with content. That is, it is all about the numbers of likes, retweet, and shares (see also Sect. 4.2). This does not contribute to deeper engagement and evaluation of emotion content. Nevertheless, a more meaningful engagement with the emotions of others would make a more valuable contribution to eudaimonic well-being.