We're Addicted To Social Media

15 April 2018

It’s not just you; leaving social media is hard. Social sites appear to be genuinely addictive and human psychology has a difficult time resisting them, especially when everyone around us is using them. The effects may even be getting stronger as we find social sites part of our daily lives, carried in our pockets and increasingly, worn on our wrists.

The idea that a service could be addictive isn’t exactly new. CNN posted about Facebook addiction in 2009 and there are articles that are even older. Addiction and social media is hitting to the mainstream discussion lately as questions about the true effects of social media continue to mount after the 2016 election.

Addictive effects of social media have been studied with varying degrees of scientific rigor. In data gathered from an experiment called 99 days of freedom, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days, many people had trouble quitting the site. Reasons for returning to the site seem to lean heavily towards a fear of missing out, which is hard to overcome when practically everyone is on Facebook. Another factor is the notification count at the top of the page. We’re drawn to clickbait headlines with content like “You won’t believe…” and it’s thought that the notification count has a similar effect, sort of like a headline like “You won’t believe what x people said about you!”

There’s even a book about the psychology behind building addiction to services. Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products talks about how to turn things like checking social media into a habit. He described in an interview with Business Insider the idea that Facebook has been so successful—and addicting—because the service has managed to get itself seen as a cure for boredom. With it available everywhere, anytime we’re bored we might decide to turn to Facebook in order to avoid being bored. He mentions the Facebook news feed in terms of casino games.

Many social media sites have mission statements that paint a picture of services helping us connect to the people we care about. In their early days, the services may have been good at that, but with constant targeting and manipulation to make us spend more time (and view more ads) they’re more addictive than ever and less effective at connecting us. Engineers from those companies have started to raise the alarm of the addictive and harmful effects of social media. Even Eyal is taking a similar position and surprised attendees to a recent conference by introducing ways to resist the pull of social media’s tricks to keep us coming back.

One of those people is the creator of the Facebook “like” button, Rosenstein. Rosenstein describes the feature he created as “bright dings of pseudo pleasure.” He no longer uses Facebook and is part of a group of people with similar backgrounds who are building a convincing story to counter the PR of social media services. Among other things, the group believes the social media we know today has a negative effect on the political system. They suggest that social media, if left unchecked, could—and maybe already has—upend democracy. They’re serious enough about it that they don’t use the popular products of Silicon Valley and send their kids to schools that ban devices like laptops and iPads.

The addictive nature of various online services isn’t a problem with the Internet in general. Parts of the addictive features are most likely intentional features designed to keep us on a website to show us more ads. The ad-based model of providing free services is partly to blame for this because it incentivizes sites to be as addictive and sticky as possible. Without accountability for what gets shown in the interest of keeping users on a site, this poses a clear problem.

Although it’s not a new problem, it has gotten worse since social media is now an effective place to spread propaganda and misinformation. Social media giants appear to be coming to terms with the problems of their ad-based addiction models as misinformation and allegations of fake news turn up on a daily basis. Zuckerberg himself has admitted that “we didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility.” One thing is clear; whatever apologies and solutions social media sites offer, it’s past time to hold them accountable for their effect on us and on our ability to be informed.

Care about what the web is doing to our minds? Check out my book, The Thought Trap, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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