Many have joined Facebook and its competitors, because “It’s a great way to keep in touch with people!” And so it has been. Yet there are obvious pros and cons to just about everything, and social media is no exception. Social media serves to connect people, but it has some nefarious consequences for users.
Pew Research Center reports that the percentage of Americans on at least one social network has grown from 5% in 2005 to a stunning 69% in 2018. There are many consequences of this huge change, both on a societal and individual level.
Facebook’s former employees and investors have warned that the network was designed to work on an addiction system. Each like, comment and follow are designed to keep users engaged on the site.
Facebook does this by giving “rewards” (likes, follows, comments, etc.) to users unpredictably, which causes them to check their phones much more often to see if they have received anything.
This was sparked by research in behavioral psychology that shows that variable-ratio scheduled rewards receive the highest rate of involvement. This means that reward schedules at unpredictable intervals are very addictive, because each interaction contains the possibility that it will produce a reward.
This is the behavioral phenomenon that makes slot-machines so profitable. People will put in coin after coin, because they know that some kind of win will come eventually, and “I can’t quit now! What if I win big this time?” It’s the same way with social media.
In an interview with Axios, Former Facebook President Sean Parker says that when Facebook was being created, it was engineered to be addictive.
“The thought process was all about, ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ ” Parker said. “And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you more likes and comments. It’s a social validation feedback loop…You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”
This “vulnerability” is being exploited to keep people obsessively checking in and interacting with social media platforms to update their follower count or see if they have any new likes. This is exacerbated by notifications that will tell someone when they have received a “reward” (a new like, follow or comment). This will make them open up the site even more often for the validation that the “reward” brings. This creates a never-ending circle that drains the individual’s time and energy.
At a talk for Stanford Graduate School of Business students, former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, said: ”It literally is a point now where I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. That is truly where we are.” He also said “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem. This is not about Russian ads. This is a global problem.”
The social fabric is not the only thing being damaged by social media. This obsessive system affects the individual, as well. Pew Research Institute reveals that in the age category 18-24, 82% of Snapchat users report daily use; 71% report checking the app multiple times a day.
Obsessively checking social media detracts from people’s productivity. The New York Times found that constantly receiving stimulation from email notifications, texts and social media updates rewires the part of the brain that is involved with concentrating. This makes people less capable of concentrating, hampering their ability to even hold a simple conversation without checking their phone, much less accomplish everything they’ve set out to do that day. This irretrievable loss of time makes them less successful and decreases personal fulfillment.
Meaningful relationships decrease for social media users. A Pew Research Institute study found that the number of confidants a person has decreases by 33% when they are a social media user.
Sweden’s largest Facebook study indicates that using social media decreases happiness and self-esteem. Social media encourages users to compare their self and lifestyle to perfectly crafted snippets of others’ lives. This gives people a sense of inadequacy. They forget that the moments in life that are worth remembering aren’t the perfect ones, but the precious ones. Instead they see others’ definition of perfect and compare it to their own life, leaving them unhappy.
People build a life on social media and forget to actually live. One day, they wake up from scrolling through other’s “perfect lives” and realize that they didn’t bother to build their own.