‘Phubbing’ and the threat of social media addiction

By Caitlin Allard

December 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of the first text message ever sent: ‘Merry Christmas’. Since then, our culture has been transformed far beyond what we could imagine – we often rely on communication via screens instead of face-to-face. Gone are the days of landlines, and perhaps even texting itself, as we instead choose to communicate through social media messaging apps. It’s through these that we become addicted to social media without realising. Despite the potential damage to mental health, as social media apps appear to become more of a necessity, it becomes more difficult to get away from them.

The first text I ever sent was on a 9-button keypad, and took about 15 minutes to compose. Nowadays I fear getting RSI from the speed at which I can type with two thumbs. After my first text came my first conversation on MSN messenger. This, again, was an exciting new way to communicate. But now, texting and instant messaging have become chores. We no longer manage relationships simply whenever we are with that person: we are constantly juggling streams of communication with people across the country, sometimes maintaining different conversations with the same people on different platforms. The demand to reply constantly and instantly is draining. We used to say ‘brb’ or ‘g2g’, but now we are always available.

Texting and instant messaging have become chores.

This ever-presence is a result, or has resulted in, a so-called ‘culture of availability’ evident in Facebook and WhatsApp’s ‘last active’ feature. We are not even granted the privacy to check messages, or to open an app, without others knowing. Furthermore, with apps like Facebook Messenger, we no longer have a say in who contacts us ­– no one needs a mobile number anymore. It can seem as if others feel they have the right to reach you and get your response at any moment in time.

We no longer manage relationships simply whenever we are with that person: we are constantly juggling streams of communication.

Cultures like this are especially prominent and harmful in environments like Durham. When so many student groups are organised almost entirely on Facebook, the choice to participate in social media or not is no longer really a choice at all. To choose to not have a Facebook account is to choose to be unaware of most social events going on around the University. It’s a choice to be isolated.

This necessity easily spirals into addiction. In 2014 social media made up 28% of time spent online, and 20-29 year olds spend an average of 2 hours a day on it. That’s 730 hours, or the equivalent of a month, spent every year entirely on social media. 18 percent of people can’t go without checking Facebook for a few hours, and 28 percent of people check Twitter as soon as they wake up. This huge shift towards technology has contributed to anxiety and depression levels increasing by 70% in the last 25 years.

We spend the equivalent of a month every year on social media.

Social media is designed to be addictive. Every time we get a ‘like’ or ‘favourite’, a surge of dopamine is released. Our brains then concern themselves with getting more and more of this dopamine hit, figuring out how to gain more likes, more followers, more seals of approval. Even though the ‘likes’ we give to others feel inconsequential, the ‘likes’ we receive feel far more meaningful. Our brains become focused on creating content we know will get the results we desire. Regular Twitter users can easily formulate their thoughts into short, punchy statements for individual tweets; photos aren’t just moments to be captured, but Instagram opportunities.

Though the ‘likes’ we give to others feel inconsequential, the ‘likes’ we receive feel far more meaningful.

Such addiction is the intent of social media sites. Facebook has admitted that it is bad for mental health, that “passive” use of the app can make people “feel worse”, but suggested a more engaged use can improve wellbeing. However, former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya, has stated that “the short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Employees of Facebook are clearly aware of the potential impact even an “engaged” use can have.

“Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”

The regular compulsion to check the app, triggered by the app’s reminders to ‘allow notifications’ on our phones, demonstrates its desire to access more of our lives. It has a big impact on cognitive ability as well as self-esteem: there are growing concerns that the distracting nature of social media can reduce IQs. Justin Rosenstein, who helped create Facebook’s ‘like’ button, has criticised the“continuous partial attention” caused by technology, that means “Everyone is distracted. All of the time.”

It is the aim of companies to achieve this distraction. Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, has run courses for tech entrepreneurs on how to manipulate users to ensure habitual usage of their products. Tickets for events such as these can cost up to $1,700. For those who are a bit more frugal, he runs an online course on “How to build habit-forming technology” for $99. Eyal states in his book that “the technologies we use have turned into compulsions, if not full-fledged addictions […] just as their designers intended.”

Facebook exploits feelings of insecurity and worthlessness

We do not have as much control as we think we do. As we become more addicted to social media, it becomes more damaging for our mental health. And sites exploit this to increase their control. A leaked Facebook report revealed that the company can identify when teens feel “insecure”, “worthless”, or like they “need a confidence boost”. Facebook exploits these feelings with its dopamine-releasing features, as does Twitter, as does Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn. People feeling low can visit these apps for a surge of dopamine, whether knowingly or not, and will therefore come back again and again.

As we become more addicted, social media becomes more damaging for our mental health.

The apps also increase social isolation, deliberately creating the lowness needed for users to come back again and again. Tristan Harris, a 33-year-old former Google employee, said in a recent TedTalk that, as a result of this control, “A handful of people, working at a handful of technology companies, through their choices will steer what a billion people are thinking today.” The power of social media giants has become unquantifiable.

I dread to think what the long-term impact of social media will be

More and more employees from these big companies are distancing themselves from social media. They are, after all, most aware of the risks they pose. But the rest of us need to decide whether or not to reduce our usage for the sake of our mental health. The Royal Society for Public Health suggests combatting the threats to mental health by introducing pop-up messages on social media sites after prolonged usage. This could identify people suffering with mental health issues and “discretely signpost” ways to help them, by, for example, highlighting when photos have been digitally manipulated. But, until the big social media sites make big changes, limiting our own usage might be the only solution.

Apps like Forest are a good first step towards reducing the time we spend on our phones and increasing the time we spend in our own lives. I don’t know the long-term solution, and dread to think what the impact of social media will be on future generations, let alone ours. But, with net neutrality under threat, there’s a likelihood that we’ll spend less time on social media if we have to pay more for it.

Photograph: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via Flickr and Creative Commons

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