It's hard for many of us to remember a time before social media, but when you think about it, social media hasn't been around for long. In fact, if you go by the date Facebook profiles became available to the public, social media has been a "thing" for just about a decade. Yet still, social sites like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and more have become essential parts of our daily lives - so much so that few of us have actually stopped to think, is this actually a good thing?
Well, after 10 years of social interactions and online relationships, we actually have enough data to answer that question. Which is that social media, in its current form, has a net negative effect on society. Even Facebook agrees. However, we can't discount the fact that social media can be positive - if used correctly. In this article, we discuss the science and psychology driving our social media obsession, including what's wrong with it, and more importantly, what we can do to fix it.
Social media has always had its naysayers. Over time, however, these people have quickly dwindled towards zero. Until now. Recently, influential social media titans like former Facebook executives Sean Parker and Chamath Palihapitiya have spoken out against social media and it's hold on society. They claim that the job of social media companies (and web-based businesses in general) is not to better society but rather to make you more addicted to their apps or experiences.
Which makes sense, seeing that modern companies are incentivized to increase value to shareholders, and little else. In response, social media companies have become obsessed with human psychology, looking for ways to increase average user session length and overall user growth. As a result, social media has become increasingly addictive, ironically causing both self-obsession and a lack of individualism.
Below we discuss the 3 major psychological developments caused by social media:
The goal of social media companies is to increase the time you spend within their ecosystems by affecting the human physiology. Humans are animals - monkeys, to be exact. Like all other mammals, we have fight or flight mechanisms built into our brain in the form of neurotransmitters (among others). These neurotransmitters are released in times of great need, helping us focus, fight, or flee, whenever necessary.
For example, you can think of dopamine as the "fight or flight mechanism." When dopamine is released in the brain, it causes us to become sharply focused, giving us drive and helping us assess situations quickly. It's no surprise that cocaine increases the release of dopamine in the brain. What social media companies knew is that dopamine is also the "want" neurotransmitter, increasing feelings of desire and affecting the reward and pleasure centers of our brain.
But that's not all. We also have a chemical in our brain called "oxytocin," which is considered the "cuddle chemical" for its pleasure-like feelings that arise when we're physically or emotionally connecting with someone. Of course, when oxytocin is released in our brain, it causes us to become more trusting, empathetic, and ultimately more connected to those we're interacting with.
So what did you think the social media companies did with this information? Well, they built their platforms so it increased levels of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain. And again, who can blame them when they're graded on growth and not social consciousness. The irony, however, is that dopamine and oxytocin come in spikes - they aren't sustaining. As a result, we've become increasingly more addicted to those spikes, coming back to our shiny phones time and time again for another hit.
Social media platforms can do this via planned unpredictability, a constant flow of information, and with reward cues like red notifications. As a result, we've found that oxytocin can spike by as much as 13%, the same percentage increase that many feel on their wedding day. Now, think what would happen if you could experience your wedding day (and all the emotions that came with it), over and over again, whenever you want, just by logging into a phone app.
Of course, the result is that you quickly become addicted to those spikes in dopamine and oxytocin - those feelings of elation and joy. In fact, recent studies show that a tweet notification can be harder pass up than a cigarette or alcoholic beverage. So, just like cocaine, people keep coming back for another hit of social media as soon as their dopamine and oxytocin chemicals fall back towards baseline.
However, this is only half of the problem, because if you know anything about addiction, you know that over time, it becomes increasingly more difficult to get your high because you've built up a resistance to the effect of the chemicals. So what do you do? You check social media twice as often to get the same feeling. Fast forward a few years and it's easy to see why you check your phone 100+ times a day, and even easier to see why people think that it's perfectly normal and acceptable to do so.
These habits based on addiction have become so prevalent in our society that researchers in Norway have gone so far as to pioneer a psychological scale to determine Facebook addiction, called the Bergen Facebook Addiction Scale. This scale has six inputs that range from "feeling the urge to use Facebook more and more," to "you use Facebook so much it has a negative effect on your job and/or studies." Chances are this is a test many of us would fail.
Social media not only causes us to become addicted to the platforms themselves but also addicted to our sense of selves. Social media has brought forth the age of self-obsession, where an Instagram feed of someone's own face is considered entirely normal things. Where taking pictures of yourself next to a person, place, or thing, is more important than experiencing the person, place, or thing itself.
Think about that. We've become more obsessed with showing people who we think we are, rather than obsessed with discovering who we are for ourselves. For example, people typically talk about themselves roughly 30% - 40% of the time in any given conversation. However, when you take those same conversations online, people talk about themselves as much as 80% of the time, or more. So, while social media can serve as a great tool that connects people together, we instead spend the lion's share of our time talking about ourselves, and little else.
Extrapolate that out, and we begin to understand why people seem to be more ego-centric nowadays. It's because we've been taught and trained by social media platforms that talking about yourself is best. Hell, everyone else seems to be doing it, so why not us? However, when historical averages drop from focusing on others 60% of the time to 20% or less, it begins to erode at the core of what it means to be human - tribal members working towards a common good with others in mind.
Take the selfie, for example. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has officially deemed the selfie a mental disorder. What they say is that the selfie is a compulsive and often obsessive desire to portray yourself in the best life and cover up low self-esteem and gaps in intimacy. What this means is that not only has social media become a self-obsession that takes us away from a community-focused society, but it also prolongs feelings of inadequacy and ultimately discourages individualism.
In order to understand exactly how social media discourages individualism, you have to first understand the part of the brain called the Temporal Parietal Junction (TPJ). The TPJ is the part of the brain active when people are deciding whether or not to share something on social media. Researchers at UCLA discovered that when looking at the TPJ, people were more likely to share something on social media not because it was enjoyable to them, but because they thought that others might enjoy it.
This isn't Earth-shattering news. Of course, someone would only share something if they thought their friends and followers would enjoy it. However, thanks to social proof, this simple fact has led to now infamous echo chambers filled with people who don't think for themselves. This is because people inherently wait for someone else to jump before jumping themselves. This is social proof - waiting for validation and verification by other people before committing to an action.
So we wait to see what others are posting on social media, and then the TPJ identifies things to share that we assume is what others want to see. The result is that over time, as we validate what others are sharing by sharing similar pieces of information, which in turn validates what we're sharing, we create a social media bubble that is as much a case of "chicken or the egg" as anything. Even the selfies we take are influenced by the social proof of others so that even our self-obsession ironically lacks individualism.
Ok, so we've identified the science behind our social media psychology. Specifically, there are five key problems with social media and how it affects us psychologically and emotionally. The combined result of these problems is that the very fabric of society and the simple way we interact with each other is changing, and not for the better.
Below are the five key problems caused by social media:
I'm sure the things in your head and the things you say behind closed doors are much different than the things you say out in public. You might admonish your boss in private and act like his or her best friend in public. It's perfectly normal. However, thanks to social media, we've now put up a screen between people when they converse. We dehumanize the conversation.
As a result, people are more willing - and far more likely - to say hurtful things and make hollow threats. Just look at the comments on any article, picture, or piece of digital content. Chances are most of the discourse is between trolls, trying to cut down the person who created the content as well as the fellow trolls commenting.
This is much different than how it used to be, when you had to look someone in the eye when you were calling them ugly or telling them you wanted to kill their family (heaven forbid). Not anymore. Now, we can hide behind our Twitter handles and Facebook profiles, calling people "sluts" or "idiots" from the comfort of our couch.
Stated previously, social media creates echo chambers and social bubbles. These bubbles, by definition, are filled with like-minded people who share many of your beliefs and most likely have similar experiences and life backgrounds. As a result, social media causes a decline in diversity, even though the global community is more connected than ever before.
Rather than interfacing with someone with opposing ideas and having a spirited discussion in which you both expand your worldview, we now only validate our narrow system of beliefs with others who have equally narrow beliefs. In a time where a connected world should lead to more diversity, it's actually causing a decline in both diversity as well as independent thought.
The goal of any for-profit business is to grow and return value to its shareholders. Once a company becomes public, that goal is measured using stock prices and earnings per share. For this reason, social media companies actively try to create an experience that's intentionally addictive. It's not even their fault, really.
If we expect companies to grow each and every quarter, what else is Facebook going to do? Of course Twitter is going to find ways to increase session length and its overall user base. What better way to do so than to target the pleasure centers of the brain?
As a result of our social media addiction, humans have become increasingly more unproductive as it relates to deep work. Instead, we opt for unproductive hours spent half-attending to our tasks while we keep one thumb on our Facebook news feed. The result isn't that we get less work done, but rather that we give less time and attention to the work that deserves it.
Why would you sit down and start your next obligation when you could check your Twitter account for new notifications? You'll be rewarded with dopamine and oxytocin, two things your job is lacking.
Social media is a chance for us all to portray our best selves. Our social media feeds are wrought with beautiful people traveling the world and seemingly living the life we all secretly want. As a result, we essentially compare our life story to someone else's highlight reel. It should come as no surprise, then, that social media increases feelings of inadequacy as we look online and see one idyllic life after another (none of which are ours).
In fact, a study posted on PLOS found that Facebook can lead to a decline in subjective well-being. It can decrease overall life contentment as well as moment-to-moment happiness. What's more, the study found that the more you use the Facebook platform, the more unhappy and inadequate you're liable to feel.
So we've spent this article admonishing social media psychology and villainizing the companies operating within the social media space. However, we know that deep down, social media can be an amazing tool with positive benefits. The key is to use it the right way - as a tool, rather than an essential component of social interaction.
For example, if you want to invite people to a party you're throwing, Facebook might be a perfect tool to do so. If you want to disseminate information to those around you, Twitter is apt for the task. These are the right ways to use social media. The wrong way is to keep a browser tab open with your Facebook newsfeed, scrolling through it for large chunks of time. This is no good and only perpetuates the many problems we've already identified.
For me, using social media the right way was a simple act of deleting all the social media apps from my phone. Studies show that quitting things like Facebook can actually lead to higher levels of well-being. Don't worry, I still have my social profiles active, and I'll occasionally use my desktop to check my feeds, but once you take it off your phone, social media stops being top of mind. Over time, you forget you even have it, letting your brain fill itself with much more interesting pieces of information.
The best thing to come of this is that I almost never go on Instagram anymore. I realized after a time that my feed was filled with "Instagram models" and famous people like Drake living insane lives. This can't be healthy, I thought to myself, this isn't real life. So I started by cleaning my feed so only my true friends were in it. But that wasn't enough, either, because even those we love most are caught in the same trap we are - portraying only their best lives on social media.
So I quit it altogether and haven't been on it since. And I'll tell you what - those first few days and weeks I'd check my phone constantly, only to realize that there was nothing to look at, no shiny lights or bright notifications to give myself dopamine squirts. Just like an addict, I had to wean myself off my phone, which was really eye-opening.
But now I sit here right next to my smart device and I have no desire to check it. I no longer find myself wondering how this friend afforded a trip abroad when I can't, or how that friend's job seems better than mine. Instead, I'm more focused on what's in front of me and around me, giving myself more room to think and grow. And I'll tell you, I think my life is better off because of it.
The bottom line is that maybe the best way to use social media is to not use it at all. However, there's a lot of good that can come from social media. Instead of not using it at all, perhaps it's best to use it sparingly, understanding that it affects us in many negative ways, and the more we use it, the more susceptible we are to fall into its trap. For this reason, make sure you understand social media psychology so you can combat it when necessary.