Birth of an Internet Salesman: The Role of Anxiety and Social Media in Experience

May 5, 2021 at 11:08 AM
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Birth of an Internet Salesman: The Role of Anxiety and Social Media in Experience

by Andrew Keating UA’22 and Jim Stellar

Let us start with three questions from the student experience:

  1. How can social media be re-evaluated through the lens of mindfulness to positively influence one’s motivation toward their potential?
  2. What can we learn about people from looking at connections between cognitive and emotional brain circuits?
  3. How can we handle our relatively new entrepreneurial social media environment?

Our current Social Environment

Entrepreneurship is an often-overlooked aspect of experiential education. Often, one may think of experiential education opportunities as internships, studying abroad, or research, which are all excellent opportunities for students for students provided by universities and sometimes in partnership with future employers. Entrepreneurship exists in a slightly different realm than classroom learning and it’s benefits are direct as determined by student engagement, motivation, and confidence within their product or service.

However, starting a business is an idea that at least in AK’s experience, is far too often underpromoted in universities. As JS puts it in his 2017 book, Education that Works, “We leave the completion of a young person’s education to the real world or the school of hard knocks through jobs and other life experiences.” As a student, I understand that student bodies are often subjected to learning from their own life experiences, however one of the toughest and most ever-present teachers in that school of hard knocks is social media.

From the formation of Facebook to the institution of Instagram, this generation has witnessed social media become increasingly multi-faceted, containing some form of content for each of its users. This may seem like a good thing at face value, however recent research has shown that, as they say, “more time spent using social media was significantly associated with greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety.” This same study also found that, “more daily social media use was significantly associated with a greater likelihood of participants scoring above the anxiety severity clinical cut-off indicating a probable anxiety disorder.”

How does this social media internet anxiety relate to student confidence?

As a tool, Social media has been proven to be indispensable for promotion of ideas, products, and campaigns designed to engage customers. When used correctly, social media can be an excellent method for spreading ideas, sharing information, and cultivating online communities. This however is only when social media is used as a tool. What happens more often than not is that social media starts as something fun for someone to stay connected with friends, and then evolves into an echo chamber of ideas and interests that can slowly become an idea cage with limiting perspectives such as oversaturation of a field, failed startups, and a lack of original ideas. While this example may seem a bit extreme, it is the harsh reality often unconsciously experienced by students, educators, and the many impressive student minds of academia who may have had the potential for success had they not had their ideas stifled, by internet anxiety. The experience of anxiety is more than just fear. It can look like the inability to properly regulate emotions. It can present itself as constant overthinking. It can feel like a persistent voice in the back of one’s mind nudging them to over-analyze situations presented to them. Unfortunately however, rising anxiety in college populations is in part, gaining prevalence through social media.

Where could this internet anxiety be coming from?

We’re all a part of a living cyborg. Each like, comment, view, subscription, and other interaction with social media one may partake in is monitored and integrated into a promotional algorithm. How much time a user may spend viewing each post is accounted for and implemented to feed users similar posts. We provide input, and an algorithm designed to captivate our attention delivers an output. This means that one’s interests are constantly funneled into their feed whether they consist of dancing, cooking, music, or their desired career path. This dynamic promotes unease and anxiety either directly or implicitly in a student’s mind. To understand this, let’s think of social media as a success filter. The majority of posts made to social media present one’s successes, such as the purchase of a new car, going out to dinner, or taking a vacation. People often don’t highlight their failures or shortcomings on social media unless prompted to. The dynamic this creates is that of abundance and lack. If you’re sitting at home seeing others having an abundance of success, that presents the idea to the mind that without that abundance of success, you’re now comparatively lacking success. The same applies regarding entrepreneurship. If you see your friend starting a company based on their interests, and having success, those visuals have the potential for reinforcing the abundance/lack dynamic. For example, you might say, “Steve is having so much success selling clothes, and yet, so many other people are failing. I wonder what I’m doing wrong. How’d he make this happen when so many people are doing it? I bet it took him so long to get this started.” This is the kind of dialogue that one may begin reciting mentally after the abundance/lack dynamic has been instituted, and it’s this dialogue that stifles one’s potential for success. Some people are more susceptible to these anxiety driven patterns of thinking than others, and that may be due to the way one’s brain structures communicate.

The medial Prefrontal Cortex, the Amygdala, and Anxiety

The Medial Prefrontal Cortex (mPFC) is involved with processing affect, operates in decision making, and is involved in schema formation and expression through its interaction with the hippocampus. Basically, think of the mPFC as the pilot of your mental voyage through life. The mPFC is one of the primary components of the brain associated with making decisions and implementing knowledge. The amygdala, however, is the portion of the brain involved in emotion. When one feels fear, or threat, the amygdala is active. With other deep brain structures, it plays a role in the processing of pleasure, reward, empathy, and other learned emotional reactions to stimuli. Without even diving into the research, one may already be able to form an association between the two brain regions. Think of it like this; the mPFC is the vehicle, while the amygdala is the type of gas in the engine of the vehicle. The amygdala provides the emotional response, while the mPFC carries out the physical and logical response. While other brain structures are involved in reaction to stimuli such as the Thalamus, Hypothalamus, and the Hippocampus, for the purposes of this paper, we focused on the conversation between the mPFC, and the amygdala.

What is this conversation?  In 2010, researchers Kim, et al., sought to determine if differences in functional brain connectivity would vary with individual differences in high vs low baseline reported resting anxiety that was below the threshold of a clinical condition. They studied these differences in functional brain connectivity between the mPFC and the amygdala using fMRI scans. The connectivity between the mPFC and the amygdala was stronger in subjects who were less anxious.  This observation is significant for two reasons: First because it suggests that anxiety is better handled when the mPFC and amygdala are in more complete “dialogue,” and second because it treats anxiety as a persistent characteristic of the mind, as opposed to as an isolated event, occurring in response to some stimulus.

Why is this important?

We’ve established that persistent use of social media has been correlated to anxiety within research participants. Additionally, we understand the mechanisms of that anxiety at the level of the mPFC and the amygdala…but what does any of this really mean? Anxiety can cause one to make decisions from a state of self-preservation as opposed to using a genuine and sound mind to do so. For this reason, a person with anxiety may make many risk-averse decisions in order to prevent conflict. Entrepreneurship however, often requires a leap of faith. There is often no safety net of a boss or manager for when conflict arises in one’s conquest for business ownership. There is only you and your work. That challenge may seem daunting for someone who’s mPFC has been trained to work out of sync with their amygdala. If they work together, as discussed in the paragraph above, studies show that people have lower levels of sub-clinical anxiety.  For someone who’s emotional responses are out of sync with their rational responses. So the task of regulating this conversation between these two brain structures now falls on the student.

Relief from mindfulness

When people think about mindfulness, they often correlate it to yoga, meditation, deep breathing, and acceptance. Silly right? No, this is exactly what mindfulness can look like. In a previous blog, the default mode network was linked to mind wandering, which could be related to mindfulness in the sense that you’re letting your mind go free. Another component of mindfulness is accepting what your mind generates, without letting it stress you out. This may seem dismissive at first, but an important concept of mindfulness is neutrality. Becoming the observer of your emotions, rather than the judge, provides one the ability to better understand their actions. This is especially important when using social media. Considering the fast paced, dopamine driven nature of social media, there are plenty of reasons one may need to pump the brakes from time to time.

Think about how much time per day you give to something else other than your mind. How much time do you spend listening to YouTube influencers rattling off about their lives, or scrolling through social media to see what others are doing outside, or staring into the endless void that is TikTok or Instagram reels or whatever social media dominates your attention? Spending a small fraction of that time sitting with oneself meditating and reflecting, or journaling based on prompts, or even just doing some light yoga may provide the brain with the brief rest it may need to re-center itself. If the brain structures involved in emotion regulation require constructive conversation, one must allow the mind to both speak and listen. This conversation is what allows us to achieve our goals with the least friction. This mindfulness practice can keep one motivated to achieve their goals. It bolsters the confidence required to fully immerse oneself in an internship, research lab, or other kinds of experiential education and may even make possible the birth of a salesman.

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