As Bill Murray asserts, “Social media is training us to compare our lives, instead of appreciating everything we are. No wonder why everyone is depressed.” Social networks are everywhere – it will not take long to find people staring into their phones in public, engaging in their electronic social activity. On the surface, nothing appears to be wrong. People use these incredible tools to connect with friends worldwide, stay up to date on the news, and participate in groups of interest. However, the pretty user interface hides many tricks and methods aimed at keeping users engaged and participating. Software architects built these systems with a deep understanding of human psychology and behavior. Social networks abuse a fundamental mechanism of our existence – the need to form groups with other people, communicate, and coexist. Social media is ripping apart the social aspect of human existence by creating a divide in communication, understanding, and unity (Palihapitiya). Digitizing our lives through free centralized platforms, which profit from human attention, created many problems in society including addiction, behavior manipulation, and misinformation.
One of the first and most apparent issues with social networks is addiction. It may come as a surprise that it was an intentional design decision; the more time users spend on the platform, the more money that social network makes. The “feed” is a constant supply of information about friends’ posts, reposts, subscribed groups, and advertisement content. The algorithm chooses the information according to its value and scarcity. Streaks of uninteresting information are interwoven with attractive posts to keep the user engaged, and the anticipation of another jackpot is what makes social media feeds addictive but very subtle in their action (Kruger). The article “A Study of Components Of Behavioral Addiction To Social Media Use In Current Generation Of Pakistani Youth” statistically proves that social media causes behavioral addiction similar to that of chemical drugs (Mazhar et al). Researchers describe and compare human behavior alterations with parameters like “Conflict, Mood Modification, Relapse, Salience, Tolerance, and Withdrawal,” used for traditional addiction classifications (Mazhar et al). In the study, most participants were found with all six traditional classical addition parameters due to the regular use of Facebook (Mazhar et al). The ease of access to a wealth of information makes it extremely hard to abstain from using the platform; frequent mobile phone notifications and email reminders of missed events keep users hooked.
Another issue is that social networks are capable of behavior modification. The collective attention of its users fuels the platform. One of the metrics that any social network tries to increase is the cost per click. The metric describes an amount that the advertiser will pay for a user who clicked on their ad. The more users engage with the ad, the more money Facebook, for xample, makes. So, it is in the platform’s best interest to learn as much as possible from the users’ actions, predict their behavior, and personalize the content. But how does the algorithm get to know the user in the first place? “Likes” are a universal metric that is an indicator of what user prefers; seeing but not liking a post is an indication of disinterest. In “Private Traits and Attributes Are Predictable from Digital Records of Human Behavior,” researchers used personal traits and social media activity history to create behavior models (Kosinski et al). In the conclusion of the paper, they state: “We show that a wide variety of people’s personal attributes, ranging from sexual orientation to intelligence, can be automatically and accurately inferred using their Facebook Likes” (Kosinski et al). Their dimension reduction model was able to find if the subjects are satisfied with life or are emotionally stable and whether they are introverts or extraverts (Kosinski et al). This information is what gives Facebook enough intelligence to drive the prices of targeted advertisements up. The researchers also state that since this information is “inferred” from the user, it is not legally required to request individual consent or notify the users (Kosinski et al). As for the behavior modification, in a large-scale study, “The spread of emotion via Facebook,” a data scientist claims that the social media platform can alter its users’ emotions (Kramer). The study found a statistically strong link between exposure to what the scientist labels an “emotional post” to the users’ subsequent behavior exposed to said content (Kramer). Additionally, the article highlights that emotions can also be suppressed or affected negatively via the use of “Negative words” (Kramer). The algorithms extract as much profit as possible from human attention on a global scale. Sooner or later, these practices will change how humans behave and interact with one another. Chamath Palihapitiya, a former executive of growth at Facebook, stated in an interview that “Your behaviors, you do not realize it, but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you got to decide how much you are willing to give up” (“Money as an Instrument of Change”).
Many social media users are not aware of their addiction because they are “in the loop” – social networks become an integral part of their lives. Their new behavior becomes the norm as they are constantly checking for updates, liking other users’ content, and posting pictures. In a way, their behavior is impulsive and is shaped by the design of social networks. Some experts from the field of human sociology publish their work on the adverse effects of social media, hoping that it will help those addicted to the internet without knowing it. They conduct studies on a substantial amount of people, over three hundred thousand at times, and perform many statistical causality experiments. Nevertheless, some critics still argue against this notion of the intentional addictive design of social networks. They claim that many articles on social network addiction are fictitious and are used to lure readers with their headlines.
In the article “Why ‘Social Media Addiction’ Makes Absolutely Zero Sense,” Adam Singler, a social PR expert, expresses his viewpoints on what he calls a hysteresis in the modern world (Singler). In “The Future Buzz” blog, he highlights a study that was aimed at analyzing addictive properties of the social networks, and then quickly refutes it by saying: “That aside, these additional data points point not to addiction, but to a shifting of behavior” (Singler). Without any argumentation, he says that the study’s data does not prove that social media is addictive (Singler). The statistic reported that “56%: Social media users check Facebook at least once a day. 12%: Social media users check Facebook every couple of hours” (Singler). For Adam, these numbers are not high enough to be considered addiction – “Some other stats from the article don’t even point to addiction” (Singler). His opinion is very subjective and stands no ground. He is being hasty and is generalizing the issues without understanding much about the classical definition of addiction. The subject is more nuanced, requiring evaluation of many factors such as “Conflict, Mood Modification, Relapse, Salience, Tolerance, and Withdrawal ” (Mazhar et al). The study that Adam used for his argument concluded that every tenth person who uses social media checks it hourly. On the contrary, in my opinion, the percentage is very high and is actually indicative of Facebook’s addicting design.
Furthermore, Adam stacks the deck by ignoring the significant factor that encourages social media companies to create addictive products – money. Meanwhile, he does mention that opinions for the addictiveness of social media have anterior motives: “The idea of framing technology as addiction is sensationalistic and done to grab headlines, pageviews and links” (Singler). Interestingly, Adam is employed as is an industry speaker in social PR and online marketing areas. His livelihood is in online advertisements, which, as discussed previously, is the primary reason for the addictive design of these social giants. It is plain and simple – social media depends on the user’s attention to generate its revenue.
Another article that deems social networks as harmless was published by Pamela Rutledge in Psychology Today. It tries to clear the bad rep media platforms get for their ways of retaining user attention. Like Adam, she highlights the potential attention-grabbing ulterior motives of proponents of the idea that social media causes addiction. She is convinced that the entire argument of addiction is just blown up for likes and clicks. In her article, she cites many studies and undermines links found between human behavior and social networks. She states that “sometimes things that are only correlated get reported as being a ’cause’” (Rutledge). Indeed, statistical correlation does not mean causation, but it is a potential indication of it. Simply dismissing many studies as irrelevant due to this prenotion of causality is very unprofessional. She then later attacks those who try to raise awareness of the issue by stating: “First of all, it concerns me that, as a society, we are very cavalier tossing around the concept of ‘addiction.’ addiction is a serious psychological diagnosis based on specific and seriously life-impairing criteria” (Rutledge). According to Mazhar and researchers’ excellent and professional study, addiction can be mild or strong. There is no “cutoff point” for when someone is deemed addicted, as each patient and their condition are different (Mazhar et al). Maybe social media is less addictive than drugs, but dismissing it as harmless because it is not as potent as, for example, opium, is a logical fallacy.
Another argument present in both articles against the addictive nature of social networks is that it is not the network’s fault; instead, it is the users. Both Adam and Pamela dismiss that social networks are the cause of the addition by passing the blame on lone internet users instead. “It is people who already have problems, which are then only displayed through addiction to Facebook” (Rutledge). But, Adam states, “ that would be a manifestation of a real problem and not the actual problem in and of itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause” (Adam).
All and all, social networks are nothing of a miracle. They can allow communication with anyone instantly. Society had changed and adjusted to this technology, but our primitive monkey brains have not. We still chase the reward above everything else, and we are being cheated by having it for free. The price we pay, as a collective, is enormous. Freedom of information, regardless of its correctness, doubt of the established beliefs, and privacy, are what drives human progress forward. With social networks, we partly lose the means to progress and develop. Instead, we get addiction, hyper-personalized information, censorship, and observation of every move we make on the app. The issues are not apparent at the moment, as they do not have immediate implications. Social networks already have a global presence and are in control of information. As humans depend more on them, their adverse side effects will affect the vast majority of the population, permanently altering the next generation.
Kosinski, Michael, et al. “Private Traits and Attributes Are Predictable from Digital Records of Human Behavior.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 110, no. 15, 2013, pp. 5802–5805., doi:10.1073/pnas.1218772110.
Kramer, Adam.” The Spread of Emotion via Facebook” Facebook Research, 16 May 2012, research.fb.com/publications/the-spread-of-emotion-via-facebook/. Accessed 3 Oct. 2016.
Kruger, Daniel. “Social Media Copies Gambling Methods ‘to Create Psychological Cravings.’” IHPI News, 8 May 2018, ihpi.umich.edu/news/social-media-copies-gambling-methods-create-psychological-cravings. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.
Mazhar, Nauman, et al. “A Study of Components Of Behavioral Addiction To Social Media Use In Current Generation Of Pakistani Youth.” The Professional Medical Journal, vol 27, no. 08, 2020, pp. 1680-1685. Independent Medical Trust, doi:10.29309/tpmj/2020.27.08.4494. Accessed 7 Oct. 2020.
Palihapitiya, Chamath. “Money as an Instrument of Change.” YouTube, Stanford Graduate School of Business, 17 Nov. 2017, youtube.com/watch?v=PMotykw0SIk. Accessed 3 Oct. 2020.
Rutledge, Pamela. “Social Media Addiction: Engage Brain Before Believing.” Psychology Today, 22 May 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/positively-media/201005/social-media-addiction-engage-brain-believing. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020.
Singler, Adam. “Social Media Addiction Makes Absolutely Zero Sense.” The Future Buzz, 18 Apr. 2010, http://www.thefuturebuzz.com/2010/04/18/social-media-addiction. Accessed 2 Nov. 2020.
Roman Volovoy is a Russian student majoring in mechanical engineering at the American University in Dubai. Throughout his years in this major, he has written many scientific reports, but what he enjoys most is writing about contemporary issues in a simple and down-to-earth manner. He has developed an understanding of modern technology and the issues they bring to society. He hopes to shed light on some of these issues with this publication.