After the latest data breaches from Cambridge Analytica (intriguingly unearthed a few months before the new GDPR implementations and, with them, the hefty penalties… take from that what you will) the public have become concerned, and rightly so, about where the data they post on social media is going, who is using it and what it is used for.
But, regardless of whether your personal information is being leaked, who can view your profile and what other secrets lie behind social platforms that stop social media giants, including Mark Zuckerberg, from using the platforms as they are intended, there is an equally concerning aspect affecting those who use any form of social media.
Our society has become addicted
This statement alone does not come as a shock. Many of us, despite not wanting to admit it, are very much aware of our addictions to social media and remain wilfully blind to the issue because of how it makes us feel. With each click, like, and share we feel connected, included, and even loved by those around us- and with social media enabling us to reach loved ones near and far who would not want to be a part of it?
But self-induced addiction, whether that’s to drugs, sex, alcohol, X-box, or even Marmite, is very different from being conditioned to become addicted. So, when we learnt that social media platforms, and Facebook in particular, purposefully utilises the neurotransmitter named dopamine to elicit addictive behaviour of their sites, we began to question their intentions and “our lifestyles” in a whole new light.
Just like pain, pleasure can be harnessed and used as a means of control. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that sends pleasure signals via a chemical release of nerve cells in the brain, is harnessed on social media sites via a form of ‘dopamine-driven feedback loops’ (Chamath Palihapitiya). These feedback loops provide us with little happiness boosts whenever we share a post or receive a like/love/share in return. This is, however, a form of operant conditioning (see work by B.F. Skinner) because an association is made with receiving a like and feeling good.
The more we share and receive, the more we feel good; the more we repeat the process, the more addicted we become. In moderation, this usage of dopamine is of course fine, but when a person becomes addicted, even dependant on something in such a way, the results are far from harmless. Addictions can actually change the way your brain works; ‘first by subverting the way it registers pleasure and then by corrupting other normal drives such as learning and motivation’ (Harvard Mental Health Letter). In fact, with every like an addict will associate that like with value. So, the more likes/loves/shares they receive, the more they feel valued and the more they value themselves.
Furthermore, a need for continual validation and comparison with others has become such a substantial part of our modern life that, according to Facebook’s former vice president, Palihapitiya, it has “eroded the core foundations of how people behave by and between others [in exchange for a] fake brittle popularity that’s short-term and leaves you even more vacant and empty”. He goes on to argue that the inventors and possessors of such platforms, “created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth (…) this is a global problem”. But because you have become addicted, and because it is not a physical addiction or something that you ingest or inject, such as drugs or alcohol, you don’t realise how bad it is for you.
Similar to alcohol, some of us may become aware of the implications and side effects of the addiction and cutback, or even try to stop altogether. For others, they may continue to spiral and, while they may feel frequent ‘buzzes’ in the short term, emptiness will meet them in the long-run.
It is, however, far easier to quit something that is an addition to your life, rather than something that you have always known. The launch of Facebook’s Messenger Kids is, questionably, less of a means to safeguard children from harmful actions that are taking place on the main platform, to make more money off of advertising, or to even collect and use more data, but rather a means to further addict children and young people to social media and to keep them addicted well into adulthood.
By creating an addictive society from childhood, some even from infancy, these children are “programmed” differently to previous generations. Not only has the use of dopamine changed the way they are motivated and learn by but, in today’s world, children can say what they want, when they want, to who they want, and to make matters worse, they are rewarded and encouraged, via likes and shares, for some of the worse human impulses: including vanity, material and monetary worth and hatred/prejudice towards others.
The psychological effect this has on children is tenfold. If a child has grown up viewing social media in this way and is fully aware of how easy it is to spread hate with little or even no repercussions, their mindset of the world will be/is skewed. If they constantly see Trump (one example amid many) sharing animosity towards the LGBT society on Twitter, celebrity fat-shaming on Facebook, and only “Instagram-worthy” bodies on their phones, how are they meant to know not to follow in the same vain when this has become their norm? No wonder there has been a significant rise in teenage suicide connected to social media in recent years.
Data is, however, valuable. And when a platform makes people want to exchange their private information for a few cat videos, despite the effects this is having, then corporations/organisations are swimming in data that can be used to their advantage.
A comical story I overheard the other week tells of how a post was made on social media stating something along the lines of ‘oh my first pet was called Molly, oh how I miss her, what was your first pets name?’. This got a lot of people reminiscing about their first pets. They began conversations on this thread, naming their pets and the stories they had of them- completely blind to the fact they had just handed over one of the first security question for their bank accounts to hackers.
It is hoped that this article has highlighted just how social media can exploit people, their minds and their privacy. But regardless of what you decide to do about it, remember that, while dopamine may affect your ability to put down your phone, it does not decide for you what to post- only you have control of that! So, post wisely and think about the effects your words may have on others before hitting send.
And yes, there is a great deal of irony that this message has been shared on social media- but perhaps the best advantage of everyone being addicted to social sites, such as this, is that messages like this can be posted and seen.