Remember when smoking just about anywhere was a thing? You could smoke on planes. There were ashtrays in elevators. You could smoke in the middle of business meetings. You could smoke at the bar. At the hospital. Literally, anywhere. Cartoons invited children to take a drag. Cowboys promised young men a life of freedom and nubile ladies with a pack of Marlboros in their front checkered pocket. Even recently, tobacco companies have been found targeting lower income areas with advertisements.
And then it came to light that not only was smoking killing you, but it was harming everyone around you. Even if some of us still smoke, we’ve all at least accepted the fact that it’s a deadly habit. The world now sees the tobacco industry as an evil monster that plagued society for years, and is only now just beginning to pay up for all the bad things it did.
What if it came to be that the companies pushing social networking - Facebook, Snap, Google, Apple, Twitter - were doing the same thing today the tobacco companies started doing some decades ago? Our society’s need for social media validation could be just as bad as that need for a nicotine hit, with the cultural and mental side effects producing an even more gruesome type of addiction.
“Every time I check my phone, I’m playing the slot machine to see, ‘What did I get?’ This is one way to hijack people’s minds and create a habit, to form a habit,” said former Google Product Manager Tristan Harris on a 60 Minutes episode devoted to social media addiction. “What you do is you make it so when someone pulls a lever, sometimes they get a reward, an exciting reward. And it turns out that this design technique can be embedded inside of all these products.”
As Harris continues to point out in his “Brain Hacking” deep dive on 60 Minutes, Silicon’s Valley’s attempt to lure you into its products is definitely not by accident. In 2017, 81 percent of the U.S. population had some form of a social networking profile, marking a three percent growth to the previous year.
Even crazier, the number of worldwide social media users reached 2.34 billion, and is expected to grow to almost 3 billion by 2020. The average Facebook visit is 20 minutes, and every 60 seconds on Facebook, over 510,000 comments are posted and 293,000 statuses are updated. To top it all off, about 4.75 billion pieces of content are shared daily. If you want to pin point addiction, sometimes you just need to look at the numbers.
Even comedian and TV host Bill Maher felt the need to comment on the issue of Silicon Valley’s brain hacking.
At one point in the video, he compares young people standing outside a building to grab a smoke to young people standing outside a building to check their likes. It’s a compelling — maybe a bit reaching — but it’s a fair comparison.
There’s no question that, when over consumed, social networking can lead to all sorts of mental health and relationship problems. Studies have shown social media creates a false sense of connection, often making it harder for people to create real world relationships outside of social media. Even the prolonged use of Facebook has been linked to signs and symptoms of depression. Not to mention, the effects of cyber-bullying, which was just brought to the mainstream once again with Netflix’s ultra controversial 13 Reasons Why.
Is social networking being pushed to young people the same way cigarettes once were, and if so, is it just as addictive and even as dangerous? No one knows for sure, of course, but there’s no question that Instagram and Facebook likes create dopamine hits that make users come back for more.
“Inadvertently, whether they want to or not, they are shaping the thoughts and feelings and actions of people,” said Harris. “They are programming people. There’s always this narrative that technology’s neutral. And it’s up to us to choose how we use it. This is just not true.”
I spoke to Roberto Quinn, founder of Quinn Social. He’s been a social media strategist and digital culture expert all the way back to the Friendster days. To him, social media is just another thing humans need to use in moderation.
“Is social media addicting? Of course it is,” he said. “Social Media, just like any other form of social interaction whether passive or active, is addicting. You’re at a restaurant and a couple starts to bicker loudly, do you try and drown it out or do you pretend to look away, but over-exert your ears to listen in? When you buy a new outfit do you slump down and avoid your co-worker’s gazes or do you walk around proudly hoping for compliments?“
Addictive behavior when it comes to social networking is more of a cultural phenomenon than a medical addiction.
As for Maher’s comparison of social media companies to tobacco companies of yore, Quinn isn’t convinced, pointing out that the addictive behavior is learned at home.
“The Zuckerbergs and Spiegels of the world are interested in two things, innovation and profit. So, yes, it behooves them to ‘sell an addictive product’ as Bill Maher puts it. However, the people most responsible for a child’s development are the parents.”
He does think that the answer is right in our hands (or not in our hands, as it turns out), and that addictive behavior when it comes to social networking, is more of a cultural phenomenon than a medical addiction.
“Somewhere between sharing that political post and commenting on Kylie Jenner’s last pic we forgot how to be human,” he notes. “If you want to talk about a real cure for this addiction, start by putting phones away during meals, living in the moment, providing one another with the conversation and attention we crave, and for humanity’s sake… stop making tablets the new pacifiers.”
And he’s probably right. When was the last time you saw a parent plop a smartphone or tablet in front of their kids to keep them pacified? How minivans come with built-in TV screens or tablet holders in the back for the kids? The answer is plenty, and if kids are growing up expecting an instant-gratification screen in front of them at all times, chances are they’ll continue to need that dopamine hit into their teens and twenties.
As to whether it’s something that can be simply shut off, the jury (and studies) are still out. Here’s hoping we don’t overdose before it’s too late.