PROVO — As his nieces and nephews played in the surf during a beach vacation in Southern California, David Maxfield waded into the water with his camera, determined to document the kids' joy so that he could post photos online for their parents' amusement.
He angled his lens one way and then another, eagle-eyed and intent — until his wife, Kathy Becker, made what he now considers a profound observation: "You'd have a lot more fun if you put the camera away and just joined in."
His get-the-photo pursuit puts him among a large crowd of people so obsessed with documenting and sharing what's going on in their lives that they may actually miss the pleasure of experiencing it. People who give into the urge to document vacations, weddings and other milestones on social media seem to miss out, says Maxfield, vice president of research for VitalSmarts, a research-based training and consulting company that focuses on improving behaviors at work and elsewhere. He and colleague Joseph Grenny have co-written best-selling books on personal and professional engagement and related topics.
They wondered about gains and losses for those who let creating and posting photos and checking phones overtake simply enjoying moments, so the two men surveyed 1,623 adults, comparing their social media habits against a subjective happiness scale.
Their study found people don't get as much pleasure from their experiences when they're "focused on capturing rather than experiencing," Grenny said in a written statement. "'Likes' are a low-effort way of producing a feeling of social well-being that takes more effort to get in the real world."
Grenny called the study a "warning" that people are choosing "the easy over the real."
"I don't want to present as being for or against social media," Maxfield told the Deseret News. "I am primarily pro. I think in general, it is a positive force for good — with lots of caveats. This points out one particular one, which is that social media can interfere with living your life."
One feature of the survey was a section of "confessions" from a group that stood out as being especially at risk of disconnections in relationships and experiences, those they deemed "social media trophy hunters."
Trophy hunters were the folks who post way more than others and have many, many Facebook, Twitter and Instagram friends, Maxfield said. They check social media a lot more often than most people. But they're also "significantly less satisfied and happy with their lives."
Among examples of life interrupted — and sometimes distorted — by the hunt for likes is a mom who said she disciplined her 3-year-old "and he threw a tantrum that I thought was so funny that I disciplined him again just so I could video it. After uploading it on Instagram I thought, 'What did I just do?'"
Others in the survey told stories of lonely family gatherings where people engaged with their phones instead of each other, of dangerous situations they put themselves in to get photos and of missed moments that matter. Two sisters went to a concert and while one was busy taking pictures, her sister got to visit with a band member. The trophy hunter missed that memorable moment.
Highlights of the survey include:
• Three-fourths of those questioned said they've been "rude or disconnected" as they created posts for social media.
• More than 90 percent said they'd seen a tourist so busy taking pictures that the individual didn't enjoy or experience what he was shooting. Many admitted they'd done the same thing themselves.
• In an effort to capture and post something, 79 percent said they've "seen a parent undermine their own experience in a child's life."
• One-fourth admitted to being distracted by phones and social media during intimate moments.
• Fourteen percent have placed themselves in potentially unsafe situations to get a photo or video. Maxfield spoke of people who get killed because they're trying to take a selfie with an approaching train in the background. He noted that New York City has banned taking selfies with tigers because some visitors take very risky chances for a photo opp.
Inadvertently deadly selfies are attracting attention as a social issue. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University released a study in late 2016 that found at least 127 people worldwide died taking selfies, many of them from falls. CBS has reported that more people died taking selfies than in shark attacks. No one knows how many people have been injured in pursuit of the perfect shot.
The VitalSmarts survey documented the toll that social media trophy hunters experienced while making posts and memes instead of memories. It noted more unhappiness because people aren't interacting with the people about whom they care. They describe themselves as less happy and cite reasons including their own reckless behavior in pursuit of likes, sometimes embarrassing themselves taking selfies and posting online things that they normally would not have said.
The roots of the connection between trophy hunters and unhappiness is not clear, Maxfield said. "Maybe it's all just a coincidence, or if you're less happy with your life; something you can do to gin it up is social media. Or maybe they really are losing out on life."
But one need not be a trophy hunter to miss important experiences by paying more attention to creating likes than to experiencing life.
"One of the costs is that we lose out on enjoying some of the most enjoyable moments of our lives," said Maxfield. "When we're at a graduation, at a wedding, at a birthday, these little celebrations that are meaningful to ourselves and to others, we put something between us and participating. It's often a phone. We think about it as if we were a viewer from afar, rather than jumping in with both feet and being part of it. We give up that experience."
Maxfield and colleagues have done some research on inappropriate use of technology, such as snapping photos at a funeral. He said that new technology always opens doors to both uses and abuses, and it takes a while for norms to be created and followed.
"If you look at the use of the cellphone, there's a pretty consistent norm that you shouldn't be talking on the cellphone in church. But it isn't a norm that you shouldn't be talking while you are checking out at the store. Clerks don't like it because they may want to be able to ask you something. People in line behind you don't like it. But when we did a survey, it was 50-50 as to whether it was inappropriate or not," Maxfield said.
"There are a lot of areas where we just don't have a social norm yet. Eventually we will, but it's hard to predict what it will be."
How parenting and social media mix has been a topic of general and academic discussion for some time. Dubuque University communications expert Jenn Supple Bartels has written about how "disclosure, boundaries, identity and authenticity all contribute to a consideration of locating the ethical line in creating a digital footprint for others (specifically, our children)."
She refers to a divide of public consensus on what amounts to "oversharenting" of details about children's lives and notes ways that parents use social media "to construct and manage multiple dimensions of parental identity," including what those seeing posts think of them as parents.
While studies have gone back and forth on whether social media use is linked to an increase in depression or anxiety and fear, a recent study by researchers at the University of Connecticut published in the Journal of Affective Disorders suggests that there is "a positive association between social media use and anxiety/stress."
The study notes theories on why that could be, including getting "negative feedback" from peers, learning about stressors in others' lives, and "internalizing the pressure to maintain social network updates." Some people, based on their friends' posts, also compare themselves negatively to others. And social media bombards people with information.
A bit of advice
People who try to see themselves through others' eyes might make different decisions about how they pursue and create social media posts.
"Are you the person walking up to a bride and groom when it's not your wedding and you're not a relative?" Maxfield asks, noting people do odd things when trying to get interesting shots for posts.
He suggests setting limits on when and how often to post updates, which makes what is posted stand out and gives it greater meaning.
"Snap, look and listen." By all means, get that great shot, then put the video camera away and join in the fun, he said. People need to build in time to experience as well as document.
Maxfield and Grenny also recommend taking a vacation from your digital device. After the past presidential election, Maxfield's wife logged off social media temporarily to get away from all the related posts. She hasn't logged back on and doesn't miss it, he said.