In its infancy, the idea of social media might have had good intentions behind it. In hindsight though, social media as we know it today, seems to have caused more harm than good, for multiple (perhaps too many) reasons. The very nature of the centralization of public discourse on the internet and the mechanisms employed for reacting to content (likes, dislikes, etc), is what lead to social media becoming what it is today: a tool for manipulation.
This article is not a scientific paper, and as such, I don’t want to bore with percentages and details that you can find on more reliable sources (I do link to some of them). These are merely my thoughts, anecdotal experiences and my attempt to spread awareness about a subject I feel is genuinely harming our society.
Table of contents
- Addictiveness and the drug-like nature of social media
- Effects on mental health
- The economy of attention
- Social approval indicators
- Social media is not a substitute for real-life interaction
- Future generations and the ability to focus
- Social control and propaganda
- The solution
Addictiveness and the drug-like nature of social media
Social media arguably statisfies most of the requirements to be classified as a drug. It’s addictive, it’s a coping mechanism, it’s hard to quit and it affects our mental and even physical health, especially on young people (more on that in the next section).
Social media companies are competing to keep us engaged and make their services as addictive as possible. Many people spend a large portion of their day endlessly scrolling their feeds, consuming content that is carefully curated by complex AI to match what is most likely to keep us scrolling. Scrolling your feed isn’t necessarily exciting or fun, but it’s addicitive by design. Sometimes we don’t even want to scroll our feeds, but we do it nonetheless, like a junkie who can’t stop doing drugs, because our brains love that dopamine hit we get every time we see a new post or video popping up. Social media has mastered the “art” of exploiting our human weaknesses and subconscious, so that we are glued to our screens; that’s their business model, the more time you spend on their platform and the more ads you see, the more data you give away, the bigger their profits. It’s essentially a slot machine on steroids.
We now know that many of the major social media companies hire individuals called Attention Engineers, who borrow principles from Las Vegas casino gambling, among other places, to try to make these products as addictive as possible. That is the desired use case of these products; is that you use it in an addictive fashion because that maximizes the profit that can be extracted from your attention and data.
And something I think we’re going to be hearing more about in the near future, is that there’s a fundamental mismatch between the way our brains are wired, and this behavior of exposing yourself to stimuli with intermittent rewards throughout all of your waking hours. It’s one thing to spend a couple of hours at a slot machine in Las Vegas, but if you bring one with you, and you pull that handle all day long, from when you wake up to when you go to bed: we’re not wired from it. It short-circuits the brain, and we’re starting to find that it has actual cognitive consequences — one of them being this sort of pervasive background hum of anxiety."
— Cal Newport: Quit social media
I can especially relate to his last point about anxiety. Even though I would use social media for a few minutes each day and I could go on without checking my phone for hours, I still had this subconscious anxiety of missing out — always fighting with myself not to pick up my phone and enter this vicious cycle of time waste. And because we are dealing with a drug, the solution is sometimes to just get rid of it completely, not fight it. If you’re addicted to gambling, smoking, or anything, the best thing you can do is quit, not minimize usage. Not smoking was unheard of a few decades ago, but now that we know about the harms caused by smoking we try to get people to quit it, not live with it because it’s the norm. The same applies to social media; because everyone uses it, it doesn’t mean you should too.
Over the years I’ve noticed the following recurring patterns that indicate social media addiction:
- You can’t stay for a few hours without reflexively picking up your phone to check social media, even if there’s nothing to see.
- You compulsively refresh your feed every second without really knowing why.
- Your hand is already in the pocket the second a notification pops up, like you’re reaching for a gun.
- You pick up your phone the moment you’re bored.
- Despite knowing the harms social media causes, you still spend hours on it everyday.
- You pause to check notifications when you’re hanging out with someone, even when they might be talking to you.
- Checking social media is the first thing you do in the morning and/or the last thing before sleep. As a parallel, my father once told me the first thing he’d do when he woke up was pick up a cigarrete and start smoking before he even got out of bed.
They checked social media right before they went to sleep, and reached for their phone as soon as they woke up in the morning (they had to—all of them used it as their alarm clock). Their phone was the last thing they saw before they went to sleep and the first thing they saw when they woke up. If they woke in the middle of the night, they often ended up looking at their phone. Some used the language of addiction. “I know I shouldn’t, but I just can’t help it,” one said about looking at her phone while in bed.
— Dr. Jean Twenge: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
Social media is so smartly engineered that it even gives you a “high” when your post is successful. That is done through likes, shares, retweets, and so on. We usually underestimate how powerful this simple mechanism is, but making a “successful” post feels like you accomplished something, because you managed to capture the public’s attention.
So we want to psychologically figure out how to manipulate you as fast as possible and then give you back that dopamine hit. We did that brilliantly at Facebook. Instagram has done it. Twitter has done it.
And because we get rewarded in the short-term signals — hearts, likes, thumbs up — and we conflate that with value and truth. And instead, what it really is, is fake, brittle popularity, that’s short-term and that leaves you even more, and admit it, vacant and empty than before you did it.
— Chamath Palihapitiya (former growth VP at Facebook).
The hours people spend every day staring at a piece of glass and plastic should be enough to convince you.
Effects on mental health
It’s a known fact that extensive use of social media can lead to depression, anxiety and feelings of isolation, inadequacy, insecurity and low self-esteem. This mostly stems from the tendency humans have to compare themselves to others. In the past, we used to compare ourselves to a much smaller pool of people, mostly our immidiate circle and at worst TV-stars, but with the rise of social media the pool has increased to include pretty much most of the world. This is not really the problem per se though, but rather, the fact that much of what you see on social media isn’t an actual reflection of real life. People will go to great lengths to show off their best moments and you now have access to everyone’s curated representations of their lives, and so, it’s not uncommon to feel inadequate when you see everyone around you living their best life, even though in reality that’s only a small portion of it. We essentially compare our normal everyday lives to others’ highlight reels.
Studies have shown that those kinds of comparisons are most prevalent among young women, who tend to feel negative about their appearance, and in some cases even starve themselves to look like their favorite influencers and models. What’s even worse is that the influencers themselves often don’t like that in real life anyway. Extensive use filters and editing is very common, and as a result, they set unrealistic and fake beauty standards. There is also correlation between increase in female depression and suicide rates and use of social media.
Boys’ depressive symptoms increased by 21 percent from 2012 to 2015, while girls’ increased by 50 percent—more than twice as much. The rise in suicide, too, is more pronounced among girls. Although the rate increased for both sexes, three times as many 12-to-14-year-old girls killed themselves in 2015 as in 2007, compared with twice as many boys. The suicide rate is still higher for boys, in part because they use more-lethal methods, but girls are beginning to close the gap.
— Dr. Jean Twenge: Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?
Teenagers in general seem to be the most badly affected demographic from social media use, and there’s enough research to suggest that. Depression and suicide attempts have greatly increased since the start of the 2010s, which, is no surprise that at that time, social media and smartphones started being widely adopted by the younger generations.
Smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.
Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.
Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).
Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.
The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.
— Dr. Jean Twenge: With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit
The economy of attention
I’m not smart enough to have coined this phrase, but I think it explains the situation we’re in really well. This UC Berkley article goes a bit more in-depth on the subject.
We’ve all heard the phrase “when the product is free, you are the product”. It usually refers to how the service is free, but our data is what makes social media companies immensely profitable. But I want to give a different spin on this phrase. The goal of a product is to sell, and since we are the product, the way to tell if our product sells, is through likes and comments. This is our currency, and as is expected, we want more of it, and so, we’ll strive to take the perfect shot, to show the best moments of our lives, and we’ll wait for the right time to post in order to maximize engagement. If the product sells, we’ll create more of it. If it doesn’t, we’ll change it, and this translates to changing our appearance, our lifestyle, our identity, in order for the product to be “valuable”.
In an “actual” economy you sell a product to make money, but in the case of the social media economy, you do it for validation and to feed your ego. Even if you don’t want to admit it, for many individuals the underlying motivation behind posting on social media is to feel important, to feel that the world notices them, to project an ideal version of themselves. This is why people upload tens or hundreds of pictures of their faces and bodies, and spend hours every day perfecting their profiles and obsessing over how many likes and followers they got or who saw their stories.
Social approval indicators
See Adam Alter (NYU professor) and Tristan Harris (Google whistleblower and former engineer).
Hijacking the social apparatus in your brain is a good way to get people to keep looking back, and one thing they’ll do for example, is they introduced a lot more “social approval indicators” into these apps. A social approval indicitator is some way that someone can indicate to you that they thought about you or were thinking about you. The original structure of social media didn’t have a lot of this, but when they added things like the like button, there’s a reason for that, because now the like button meant that’s a lot more social approval indicators, and they added more and more of these things.
Tens of millions of dollars were invested to figure out how to do the facial recognition required to do auto-tagging on photos. Why did they spend so much money to solve that really hard computer science vision problem, is because it was another stream of social approval indicators. They’re always looking for ways that people can easily indicate that they are thinking about you, because human psychology says, if clicking on this app might reveal new social approval indicators, it’s almost impossibly irresistible not to. If I click on this app and see an indication that someone was thinking about me, that’s very hard to resist. And once they added those social approval indicators, usage minutes of the apps skyrocketed, because now, instead of it being something maybe you signed on to once a day to see what was going on, you had a constant reason to keep checking.
And the you add on to that “intermittent reinforcement”. Sometimes when you click there is nothing and sometimes there is; now you’re becoming almost impossible to avoid. Intermittent reinforcement is something that Las Vegas casino gambling has taken a lot of advantage of in their design of their games like slot machines.
So you put those type of things together, which are all engineered; this didn’t exist in the original social media, it’s not necessary for a social media experience to be what it is. All of that makes clicking on these apps really difficult to avoid.
— Cal Newport
Social media is not a substitute for real-life interaction
What makes real-life interaction meaningful is that it requires sacrifice, whereas a message or a like on social media doesn’t; it’s cheap. Taking the time to go outside and meet someone, reading each other’s body language and showing actual emotions (instead of emoji reactions) is something that social media simply cannot replace. The human brain is not wired to perceive likes and chat discussions as meaningful interaction.
A while ago I’ve had an interesting conversation about musicians (and artists in general), and how one can show support for their art. Imagine the following two cases; 1) you upload your music online, and lots of people like and comment on it, 2) you organize a concert where only a few people who really enjoy your music come, but make the effort to pay and spend their time to actually come and see you play. Which of the two cases you think would make a musician feel appreciated?
Spending more time on social media than in real-life not only causes a decline in social skills and an increase in “social anxiety” cases, but can also lead to depression and feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Future generations and the ability to focus
Do we really want a generation raised by TikTok and Instagram influencers? A future generation filled with mental health issues, one that is unable to have normal and healthy social lives, that is brainwashed and isolated? All that so that we make a bunch of tech companies profitable?
Our ability to focus and attention span has plummeted, because our attention is fragmented by the stream of notifications and messages we get. We’re so used to wasting hours on social media every day that we have stopped being conscious of how we spend our time. Doing important work is a struggle when you have to check your phone every few minutes, and that’s an issue even for grown-up individuals, imagine what the generations who grow up with social media from day one are going to be like.
Because social media provides constant stimuli and keeps you entertained all the time, we’ve become averse to boredom. Being bored is good, it means you have time to sit with your own thoughts and ponder. It’s a sign that you need to get a hobby and do something productive, and we lose those moments of peace and clarity when we fill our free time with noise. And I don’t believe it’s right to blame the users for this — social media apps are the result of billions of dollars worth of attention engineering.
For those reasons, and to not repeat the damage that’s been done to the current generations, it’s essential that we control our children’s tech usage in order to prevent them from becoming virtual junkies.
Social control and propaganda
In the very first paragraph I mentioned how social media, in the beginning, might have actually had genuinely good intentions. In fact, I believe that, but as time went on, tech companies realized that they’re in a position where they can use their platforms to “program” users and leverage this to promote their own political agendas and twist reality to their own advantage. Here are a few ways with which this is achieved:
- Self-regulation through likes and dislikes, content moderation, and Terms of Service. As I’ve explained here, there’s an incentive to being compliant and changing in order to be accepted. That, however also expands to beliefs and opinions, because the same mechanism can incentivize you to be a “good boy” and believe and say the right things, because that’s what will get you the best reactions, or even keep you on the platform. Reddit’s upvote/downvote system is a great example of this mechanism in action.
- Verified accounts and expert-based consensus, which is pretty much what I discussed in my article about the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. An MIT study shows fake news spreads faster than the truth.
- Data collection. Just as data is used to show you the right ads in order to maximize profits, it can also be used to train AI to promote and recommend the content and narratives that the company thinks is “correct” and will push their ideological ambitions.
Tech giants, and especially social media companies, have proven countless times how they do have political motivations behind their policies, but I’m going to let the reader look for evidence to this claim themselves this time (spoiler alert: it’s endless). Considering their political nature and the fact that they are so big they now control the virtual public square, those platforms have switched from free speech to allowing only the narratives that benefit them, hence the various methods used for dealing with dissidents (e.g shadow-banning, demonetizing, bans for arbitrary ToS violations, etc).
The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.
— Noam Chomsky
But propaganda isn’t merely only spread by bad actors, useful idiots, and politically-driven tech companies. Social media also provides governments (yes, even Western ones) with the most effective way to spread propaganda, something that people like Joseph Göbbels and Joseph Stalin (probably has to do with the first name) could only dream of in their time. Governments can now just pay influencers to spread propaganda for them, and most people will not even realize it. If you think I’m making things up, I’ll let you do the research yourself for this claim as well.
Here are a few quotes from an expert in the field that should ring an alarm:
This is the secret of propaganda: Those who are to be persuaded by it should be completely immersed in the ideas of the propaganda, without ever noticing that they are being immersed in it.
Propaganda works best when those who are being manipulated are confident they are acting on their own free will.
— Joseph Göbbels
The ideal solution is to simply quit social media altogether and seek alternative forms of online and interaction. Apart from all the unecessary harm it has caused, modern social media goes against the very notion of the decentralized (i.e normal) internet, and the online world did, does, and will function perfectly fine — better even — without social media.
However, I understand that we’ve been so conditioned to accept social media as a necessary part of our lives, that not everyone is ready to make the decision and quit it. In this case, it’s best to see social media as a purely logistical tool, which should only used to complement and improve our real life interactions, rather than replace them. This I find is rather hard to implement — especially for younger people who have been using social media all their lives — and be consistent with, without going back to the old habits. Social media is meant to addictive, it’s not just a matter of willpower.
A few steps you can take to start limiting social media usage:
- Delete all social media from your smartphone and only log in manually (i.e do not save passwords) from a computer.
- Keep only the pages and groups that are vital to your life/career and delete everything else. Log in every few days to stay up to date and log out without spending more time than is needed.
- Turn off notifications.
- Do not interact through likes and comments.
- Do not make posts.
- Make a phone call whenever you want to talk to a friend, instead of messaging them.
- Set a timer.
And remember; not using social media isn’t “weird” or “anti-social”, as you will hear some people say. Being mindful of the technologies you choose to use, having control over your time and attention, not wanting to be a passive consumer and be used as input for some mega-corporation’s AI, and seeking meaningful and real socialization is, in fact, pretty healthy.