Technological behavior modification empires are changing our lives to the worse!
– Jacob Folmand, April 2020
We click, we like, we post, we share, we follow, we unfollow, we subscribe! And we let our kids do it too.
What if I told you that social media could potentially be degrading your life and even parts of your brain.
Are you addicted to Social media?
Let’s make an imaginative test. Would you volunteer to delete Instagram and Facebook from your phone for a week? And would you feel bad about it? If the answer is yes – then you are probably more addicted than you think.
As Simon Sinek says – If you feel the urge to check your Social Media account in the morning, before you say good morning or kiss your partner – then you have an addiction.
Have you ever had that awkward feeling, when you are hanging out with your friends and colleagues for socializing, and then suddenly you recognize, all of you are busy with your phones? Does a “No phones allowed policy” scare you? If yes – then you might have a problem.
You are most likely addicted to that “fresh stream of love” from the comments section – the like counters. And yes – it is a real addiction – a biological one!
To cut the story short Social Media (also referred to as “SOME”) is literally a highly addictive drug, which we are huge consumers of – and we even provide that drug to our kids, before they have any natural defenses against it.
Social media have a massive impact on our lives and culture
With more than 2 billion world wide users of social media, and 75% of those being below the age of 35, the significance of the constructed “other life” can and may not be underestimated. The average american is today processing five times the daily amount of information as they did in 1986 – of which a significant part is from SOME which I like to refer to as modern day manipulation machines.
In modern day society kids have half as many physical play dates as they did 20 years ago. Attention deficit disorders are on a constant rise, so are depression and other neurosis among children and young individuals.
Very concerning is the steady increasing evidence that smartphones are out competing babies in the battle for eye contact in an increasing amount of young mothers (1). It doesn’t take a lot of basic psychology knowledge to be aware of the unavoidable catastrophic impact from this development – It could lead to serious attachment disorders, and contribute, if not cause the development of autism by disrupting the natural infant-mother bonding.
“…smartphones are outcompeting babies in the battle for eye contact in an increasing amount of young mothers”
To many, mostly young people, social media represents a mirror of real life. But it’s not real life – it’s a construct! A constructed life that to most seems indistinguishable from reality. But a tweaked reality: The best angle, the best light, the best moments – all wrapped in cool captions, hashtags of confidence and graphical filters.
A brief view of common side-effects associated with the use of Social Media(2)
- Decrease in ability for focus and concentration.
- Impairment of self control and ability to delay the need for gratification.
- Impairment of task switching ability – also known as decrease in multitasking ability.
- Decrease in satisfaction with life, especially among young people. A general consensus seems to exist here – that to some fragile individuals the amount of social media use is correlated with the rise in depression and higher risk of suicide.
Before we dig into the explanation of the effect of social media “ab”-use, we need to have a look at the business model
The Business Model
Social media are first and foremost about profit – not about you.
As any other business, the social media empires work for profit. What may have started being guided by passion and good intentions, inevitably turned out to be profit-driven.
Since we live in a profit-driven world, and serving self-interest is at the very core of human nature, it should come as no surprise, that the social media companies have one intention above everything else – to earn money! Not just on an individual level among founders and investors, but as a natural rule of organizational self-sustainability. The conglomerates are consolidating businesses, and the profit motive will always triumph the softer values. It is either eat or be eaten by competition.
“It’s a social-validation feedback loop… Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. “
- Sean Parker, former Facebook President(3).
The only way it’s possible for two people to communicate via profit-driven SOME platforms, is because it is funded by a third party, who thinks that, with the help of algorithms, they can manipulate you to generate profit for them in a sneaky way.
Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and other social media empires are in itself not designed to generate profit. They are designed for maximum user retention and engagement. This means to have you spending the most amount of time on social media and clicking the most amount of ads.
The business mechanism is simple: The aim is to addict you, and then sell you off to third parties, without you realizing it is happening. The third parties are those who pay Facebook to show you their ads in your stream.
Social Media today works via feedback loops, driven by machine learning. Algorithms are manipulating you subconsciously for maximum interaction. SOME is not a one way interaction like TV. SOME is adaptive – since it is a 2-way communication form, where you interact repeatedly with others and the platform itself. What you see next, is continuously calculated by algorithms of machine learning, to assure your maximum engagement.
“The aim is to addict you, and then sell you off to third parties, without you realizing it is happening.”
A look on the Psychology and Neurochemistry of Social Media
The following might offend creationists and other followers of metaphysical ideologies. Whether we like it or not – humans are biological machines. Incredibly fascinating and complex in nature. So far to a large extent still uncovered complexity – but as time passes, scientists reveal more and more what’s “under the hood” of the fascinating specie of homo sapiens.
Humans are to a high degree controlled by various hormones and neurotransmitters. You probably heard of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Maybe even norepinephrine, GABA, endorphin etc. In addition to that a complex system of more simple molecules, which among others steroid hormones like testosterone, estradiol, cortisol and so on.
I will focus on the most relevant neurotransmitter in this context – dopamine(4).
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter controlling motivation. Dopamine is often referred to as “The pleasure drug” or “The motivation drug” – but it is more than just a pleasure drug. Dopamine makes us desire things. Dopamine makes us focus, is performance enhancing and is incredibly addictive!
Shortly speaking: If an activity releases a low level of dopamine, you have little motivation to do it. If the activity releases a high level of dopamine, you will be highly motivated for it.
The evolutionary psychology perspective
Taking an evolutionary psychology perspective this mechanism makes perfect sense. The inherited basic behavior is all about the continuation of our DNA. Organisms not following this basic rule of life, simply stop existing – period. Most of our behavior, one way or the other, leads back to our genetic coding, assuring we have the highest probability of survival to pass on DNA.
Dopamine plays a key role in this context. Dopamine is released from, among other the hypothalamus. The system is configured, so activities associated with an increased probability of passing on genetics, releases higher amounts of dopamine. The more dopamine, the more motivation for such activity. Everything in relation to this releases dopamine. Some activities release more dopamine than others but even drinking water does.
To understand the origin and context of those basic mechanisms, using the life of the caveman as an example makes sense. The caveman needs just a few essential activities to assure he is passing on his DNA. He is highly motivated for sex and is highly motivated to hunt, so he is able to eat. Hunting and eating releases dopamine. The caveman was rewarded with dopamine for each proper food option he ate when it was available. If he did not take each available opportunity to eat, skipping an opportunity might be fatal, since the occurrence of the next eating opportunity was unpredictable, and it could be days, which might lead to death.
Usually the more calorie dense the food, the more release of dopamine. It is worth mentioning these basic rules explains the obesity epidemic today. Our brain is configured to seek and like high calorie dense food. Today’s constant food availability completely contradicts more than 1 mio year of brain development, since we’re programmed to take all opportunities to eat, but today’s overflow of food availability, basically to some ends up decreasing there chances of passing on their DNA due to lack of ability to attract a proper “breeding object”, infertility and diseases associated with obesity.
Since the dopamine reward circuit, can be explained in one way or another with behaviors intended to pass on DNA, it can come as no surprise, that sex trumps all activities when it comes to dopamine release.
The dopamine reward circuit is a powerful structure. If not powerful there would be no life, as we know it today.
Social Media are the digital Skinner Box
Through the past many decades there has been countless human and especially animal studies, demonstrating the power of dopamine.
One particular interesting is the famous rat study from the 1950’s carried out by psychologist James Olds and Peter Milner, who made a Skinner box modification(5), which when a rat pulled a lever, lead to a direct brain stimulation via implanted electrodes in the brain circuits associated with dopamine release. The rats basically got a “dopamine hit” for every time the pressed the lever. What happened was scary. The rats kept pulling the lever, repeatedly over and over again and again, ignoring their need for food, water and sleep. The shortcut to direct dopamine stimulation overruled all other instincts, and the rats kept doing the task repeatedly until exhaustion made them collapse.
Opposite studies have been made, where mice were chemically dopamine depleted(6.) The results were astonishing. The mice lost all drive towards any activity associated with basic survival. They basically just slept or hid in their nests. Only when food and water was placed directly in their mouth they would eat. No dopamine – No motivation.
Studies of the reward circuit have also shown again and again that unpredictable rewards give the highest release of dopamine. This has been demonstrated in “Skinner boxes”, and by analyzing interaction patterns in players of everything from simple dice games, to slot machines and online multiplayer games.
Pulling the lever of a slot machine has an unpredictable outcome, but it is the lack of predictability that has the addicting effect on the brain. If the reward came every time you pulled the lever it wouldn’t be as addictive.
The same has been shown with pigeons and mice in Skinner boxes. If the rewards are distributed randomly, while pulling a lever, the pigeon will become more obsessed with the reward releasing behavior. It’s often referred to as “The power of maybe”.
Especially in online games, it is super easy to track and optimize for the effect of random rewards. In recent years the so-called “treasure boxes” has been a hot topic of disputes, since those same games require payments and are often marketed to minors.
Above effects are the same mechanisms exploited in the optimization of your interaction with SOME. To make this clearer we need to have a look at social comparison theory.
Social comparison theory and self-centeredness
Humans are inherently self-centered. MRI scans show reward centers in people’s brains are much more active when talking about their own views as opposed to listening to others(7).
When performing a good old face-to-face communication the topic is only about “me” 30-40 % of the time. SOME is 80 % about “me, me, me” – of course adjusted for a normal statistical distribution.
The same parts of the brain dedicated to orgasm, motivation and love, are stimulated by social media! To put it on the edge: Our bodies are physically rewarding us for being self-centered online.
Social comparison theory is a complex topic. Made simple it is fundamentally the theory of how a person forms it’s beliefs and opinions about one’s own social worth, personal worth and capabilities by comparing to others(8). By comparing ourselves to our surroundings we make sense of our own reality.
To be able to survive the caveman needed his / her tribe. The instinct for social comparison was originally a beneficial skill set for our ancestors, to be able to navigate within the tribe with aim of maximizing potential with minimal friction.
In the past our comparison group was our tribe & family. Today the comparison group is the whole world.
We mostly compare upwards – either for threat assessment or to evaluate someone we would like to be. The majority of our comparisons are with people we wanna be, and people who have some of the same attributes as ourselves. Age, gender, race, interests etc. The tendency for upward comparison is known as “positioning bias”.
Fact is, that result of mostly comparing upwards makes us feel worse about ourselves. We do though also compare down, and comparing down makes us feel better. The downward comparison from social comparison theory also explains why less moral and self-conscious individuals and groups need to slander and talk bad about others. It basically makes them feel better about themselves.
Social Media leads to constant comparison. Most SOME addicts can recognize the constant need for checking the amount of likes in Facebook and Instagram. As humans we have an innate need for social validation and appreciation.
Comparison connects two different main structures in the brain.
When comparing downwards we activate the reward network. The reward network basically lights up, by increased activity (MRI) when feeling your reputation is being positively boosted, when you are being praised and actually also when others get non-seriously hurt. When we compare down we are being neurobiologically rewarded.
When comparing up we activate the pain network. The pain network does not only become activated when we are being physically hurt, but also by feeling excluded socially, by being treated unfairly and by general upwards comparison(9,10).
In the parallel universe of social media, it is all about social comparison and social validation.
When we’re presented with social events in our friend network that I missed out on, our pain network is activated. Basically the pain network is activated by the compounded experience from all events we didn’t participate in, by upward comparison with people we don’t know, and friends plus relatives who choose to present that “one moment” pic, manicured by filters and captions.
Think about it – try to observe how your received likes are distributed, and how you distributed likes. Same bland selfies get the most attention – cause you bring or get new value – or just as a lame act of courtesy to keep up the rule of reciprocity for social validation.
What you see on social media is a fake orchestrated mirror of real life, which ultimately is poking holes in our sense of reality.
Some people are at higher risk of suffering from the negative impacts of social media than others. It follows a normal statistical distribution curve. Personality traits correlated with sensibility to severe negative impacts of social comparison in SOME are people with a high level of self consciousness and self awareness. People with a lower level of self esteem and higher level of neuroticism. People who in advance tend to struggle with low mood and depressive disorders. People who tend to care a lot about what others think and feel, and who has a high level of empathy, which basically makes them more tuned in on what’s going on. In this context empathy ends up working against your own well-being. People who have a mindset of interdependence – a perception that “I need you and you need me to make life go forward”.
The biggest consumers of SOME are individuals in their late teens until the early thirties. In that same group are found the most frequent occurrence of individuals with eating disorders, body dissatisfaction, depression and general dissatisfaction with life.
No need to say we make few to no positive changes in our lives, as a result of following someone who makes us feel worse about ourselves.
Now we covered the basics of social comparison theory and the reward circuit, and we will have a look on how all this add up to influence the impact of SOME on the target user group.
It’s about dopamine. Dopamine is the driver of a positive feedback loop, which SOME is fine tuned and optimized to trigger. In SOME your primary navigation is by scrolling and clicking. Your brain anticipates a reward. You open your app and expect to see a text message or other notification to get your dopamine hit from the impact of feeling socially validated and appreciated, or simply by the expectation of being entertained.
The dopamine hit is not predictable. It won’t be there waiting for us every time, and as covered above, this is in particular addictive. It is called “The power of Maybe”. Study has shown that, when teens get a lot of likes on selfies, they have a high level of activity in among other the reward circuit “nucleus accumbens”. Same goes for positive comments.
Maybe that photo you posted didn’t get the amount of likes you wanted, so you will try again, again and again – just like the mice in the Skinner box.
Social media creates immediate reward with very little effort, which leads the brain to rewire itself to desire more of this easy stimulation.
The whole infrastructure of Social media is designed to get you chemically hooked by creating a “stealth addiction”. Addictive schemes are intentionally added to the design. Obviously you are being guided to show a certain behavior by positive and negative feedback loops. This can be positive/negative comments, amount of likes, comments etc. In recent years science indicates that this stealth addiction is just as powerful as an actual substance addiction. Brain scans have shown similar negative impairment of those with a substance addiction, specifically a clear degradation of white matter that controls emotions, attention and decision making.
Apart from the negative impact of upward comparison there are strong indications that the Machine learning algorithms of SOME has a bias towards negativity. It makes sense, since humans have an inherent faster response to negative impressions. The caveman did indeed react to positive reinforcement and stimuli, but his brain was reactive to potential danger.
Explained with basic evolutionary theory, you can imagine a caveman sensing a threat in the high grass. It could be a sable tiger, and if not having a bias towards an immediate threat response, it could ultimately be the end of his life. In opposition skipping a few berries or one in a 5 time per day mating opportunity would not be the dead end of his genetic heritage.
Since the algorithms of social media are optimized to adapt to your interactions, and learn the most from your behavior in the least amount of time, it seems that those same algorithms have an easier way of learning your behavior patterns and engaging you, when frequently exposing you to negativity.
Wrapping up the destructive impact on your life from social media
SOME indisputable creates a level of addiction(11). In addition to this and at least as scary is the abruption of our biological homeostasis on a neurotransmitter level.
Earlier in this article I mentioned how the body to a large extent are controlled by hormones and neurotransmitters. This happens by up and down regulation via feedback loops, either by adjusting production of the hormones or the density of receptors.
In some cases when the body is overexposed to certain hormones it will enter a new phase of homeostasis(12). The body becomes desensitized to the hormone or neurotransmitter in question. If we were talking about external drugs, we would be speaking of “tolerance”(13).
By being overexposed to dopamine as a consequence of easy access to instant gratification from social media (and online pornography) the body starts adapting to the imbalance. This imbalance in the homeostasis manifests itself through tolerance and down regulation of dopamine receptors. The body is now adapted to respond to only higher levels of dopamine.
Those normal activities that before released a low amount of dopamine are now completely uninteresting, since the body doesn’t react with a dopamine response to them. This adaptation to “instant gratification activities” and “dopamine receptor desensitization” explains why it can be so hard to quit a social media addiction. Since the receptors are down regulated a normal SOME life gives little to no sense of gratification. For those who find it relevant, the exact same mechanism as described above are in play when it comes to internet pornography, and maybe at an even stronger and more addicting level.
Why you should live a social media free life
Happiness can be put down to a very simple equation:
Happiness = Reality – (minus) expectations
SOME presents you with a FAKE mirror of reality. The mirror image obscures your sense of expectations of reality, which according to above equation will lead to decreased happiness. And that even before we start taking the negative impact on a neuro-psychological level into consideration.
SOME makes you egocentric and tricks you into constant upward comparison to a manipulated illusion of other people’s reality, which makes you feel worse about yourself. Smart algorithms addicts your brain by exposing you to a highly addictive instant gratification scheme which ultimately will make you appreciate real life less.
By quitting social media, or at least deleting the SOME apps from your 24/7 available smartphone, you will not just prime your brain for a boosted pleasure of actual reality on a neurological level. You will also free up precious time to experience your own REAL life, work on developing new skills, see individuals you care about life and see the real world through your own eyes. Alternatively keep experiencing life through your smartphone while you’re searching for something else. You only live once and the choice is all yours.
– Jacob Folmand – April 2020
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