Joyce Fegan: Social media is an addictive and destructive medium

People are become dependant on the dopamine hits generated by  the likes of Twitter
Joyce Fegan: Social media is an addictive and destructive medium

The Bidwell Bar Bridge in an image posted to social media by climate activist Greta Thunberg. While social media can be used to highlight good causes, it can also be used to cause harm.

You'd give up alcohol for a month but would you give up your smartphone? You'll swear off whole food groups for a year, but would you give up social media?

Or asked another way. How would you rate the clarity and independence of your mind or, how frayed are your nerves, after a day with your phone?

This week a new documentary about social media aired on Netflix, The Social Dilemma. The New York Times assessment of it? "Unplug and run".

From data mining to surveillance capitalism and from mental health issues to abuse and death threats, the reasons are as compelling as they are plentiful to take stock of social media’s impact on our lives.

Twitter is a space where politicians, the good, the bad and indifferent, get eviscerated daily. It's also a place where abuse is the hottest of commodities and traded in the form of harassment, especially of women, and specifically of women of colour. A 2018 Amnesty International report found that one in every 10 tweets sent to black women were abusive. For white women it was one in 15.

And yet we continue to open the app and pull our thumb down our phone screens to refresh this public bathroom graffiti.

In standard journalism there is an editorial process and layers through which an article or interview moves through, then there are privacy and defamation laws which must not be broken, national press councils to adhere and answer to and then finally, for the aggrieved reader, the opportunity to put pen to paper and stamp to envelope and write a letter to an editor.

But on Twitter  every half-baked, unchecked, or hateful thought gets published. These ordinarily private notes to self become real and righteous things online with even more real effects offline. Where's the transparency? Where's the regulation?

On Instagram, a platform used by a younger audience, we open the app and scroll mindlessly through a matrix of aspirational lives selling us products, beliefs and ideologies based on the data that has been mined from our online life.

The effect of that?

In The Social Dilemma, Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist from New York University points to "a gigantic increase in depression and anxiety for American teenagers which began right around 2011 and 2013".

"The number of teenage girls out of 100,000, in this country [US] who are admitted to hospital every year because they cut themselves or otherwise harm themselves, that number was pretty stable until 2010, 2011 and then it went way up. It's up 62% for older teen girls and it's up 189% for the preteen girls, that's nearly tripled," he says in the documentary.

Instagram launched on October 6, 2010.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg 
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg 

On Facebook, 'tools' such as the 'like' button or the 'tagging' option, tap into our most basic and fundamental evolutionary need for interpersonal connection. We log on and stay on to find the connection us humans are hardwired to seek and sustain in order to survive as a species.

Only it has become like a slot machine, that same ritual of opening the app and pulling our thumb down our phone screens to refresh our newsfeeds is addictive. Why? Because of the oft written-about dopamine hit.

If we expect a reward to be delivered at random, and if checking for that reward costs very little, say just our time, we will end up habitually checking for it. Twenty years' ago, we would never spend the day pacing back and forth to the letter box. The post arrived at a given time and that was it. Now we pull our thumb down the screen of our smartphones how many times a day, looking or searching for some kind of communication from anyone at all?

Sean Parker, a founding president of Facebook admitted this in 2017.

“The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph of yours, “we give you a little dopamine hit", he said. Parker resigned from Facebook in 2005.

In 2020, and in this new documentary, social media defectors are aplenty in terms of interviewees. We have former presidents of Pintererst and former Google design ethicists all sounding the alarm bell on social media. There are also early investors who reflect on the industry they once backed.

Back in the day tech was about hardware and software, now our attention and data are the products being sold to advertisers. In turn, we use these platforms for free. Or do we?

How clear is your mind, how original is your thought and how frayed are your nerves after a day spent pulling your thumb down your phone's screen?

Last Thursday, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg posted a photo to Instagram of a glowing Golden Gate Bridge. The glow was the result of wildfires raging in the Californian background.

"Reporting is not enough. Connecting the dots is not enough. Mentioning the link to the climate crisis is not enough (even though it would kind of help). If we are to have a small chance, this needs to be our main focus. It needs to dominate the news. All the time," wrote Thunberg.

Yes, social media is powerful in its ability to spread messages and highlight not the issues, but the dilemmas, of our time. Social media allowed the world to come to know this pioneering young woman Greta Thunberg, but it also allowed Donald Trump to use Facebook to become the 45th president of the United States.

The contributors to the documentary are not all prophets of doom when it comes to social media, acknowledging the good it can do.

However, it's the unchecked nature at which we allow it, coupled with capitalism, to infiltrate and affect our society, our lives and our basic functioning that needs to be questioned.

Imagine, if like alcohol, we gave up social media for a month. What could we turn all that profitable attention to? We could combat climate change or help a neighbour instead of posting conspiracy theories on Facebook. We could go back to physically meeting our friends instead of WhatsApping them or sending side-messages about them to other friends on WhatsApp. We could volunteer with community first responders and actually help save a life. Like actually, imagine that?

We could have original thoughts and inform and ingest information that has been fact-checked instead of being told what to think by a click-happy mob or by an angry, abusive and ill-informed troll.

If you took back your time and your attention how would you spend it and how would you feel?

Sober-social-media September anyone?

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