How Social Media Exploits Your Mind – Andrei Vasilachi

The Illusion of individualism.

We live in a society that preaches individualism, however, if we pay closer attention, we see that the current notion of individualism is really just a set of predefined common choices of what to be and how to act and how to think.

In a world where Google and Facebook algorithms dictate public opinion, any diversion from the mainstream is considered almost insane. There’s less and less nuance in our times, and more censorship — at least in the West.

I’ll give you as an example an ex-Google employee, James Damore. He was fired after he wrote an internal memo after one of Google’s presentations about diversity and inclusion. After the presentation they asked for feedback so Damore wrote a long memo about biological differences between men and women and that there are real biological causes of why women usually prefer other professions and not IT. (I’d recommend reading about a study in Scandinavia called “Gender Equality Paradox”) Damore was fired because according to Google he was promoting gender stereotypes and was a mysoginist, when all Damore did was describe real scientifical facts about both sexes; and more than that, he even dedicated a few pages in that memo to solutions and suggestions on how to encourage more women to join IT.

Less nuance doesn’t just affect public opinion on politics and lifestyles. It also means that we show less nuance when we display ourselves on social media. We become a caricature of ourselves — a bunch of ticked boxes that teach the algorithms about human behavior and make it a marketable resource, further encouraging conformity and being “perfect”.

Which brings me to my next point:

First, I have to address the issue of an authentic “self”. I said in a previous article that neurologically and factually speaking, the self is an illusion, and all we are is a collection of drives, impulses, and behaviors that are always changing. But for the sake of simplifying, let’s give it a pass and call it a “self”.

Even if the self is an illusion, it’s an illusion in which we invest most of our time. Admit it or not, most of us measure our self-worth by comparing ourselves to others, it’s always been like that and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon — it’s just human nature.

Now what happens if what we compare ourselves to is not real? What happens if the identities of people we see online are just their highlights, their polished selves, and not the real version of them? Surely, we know the difference, don’t we? Well, rationally yes. Emotionally? Not really.

Our first reaction to any social cue or interaction (even online) is emotional, because emotions are instinctual and instinct drives most of our behavior. So naturally, the first emotion we feel when we see happy looking people online is questioning our own self-worth, our own occupation — as if that good picture someone chose from 30 of them and that trip to Europe is the objective way to judge their life in general. We know that it’s just a highlight, but our emotional brain doesn’t — at least at first. Which means that most of the time when we scroll down on our Facebook or Instagram feed and see others having more fun than us, our first emotional response is to feel jealous and insecure, and if we spend hours every day doing that, it eventually takes a toll on our mental health, and it may even lead to higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Look, I’m not saying that we should all abandon social media and go live in the fucking woods. (no offence to off-the-grid people, I’m just jealous tbh)

All I’m saying is that the first step to solving a problem is identifying the damn problem. Yes, I believe that social media — the way it is currently built and the way it is evolving — is a big fucking problem. It highlights and exploits our weaknesses and vices. We need to bring this issue up more often and we need to find solutions.

I could see you objecting right now: Andrei, it’s not social media’s fault that people are so susceptible to it, it was never its intention to exploit us in the first place, it was made to connect people.

To which I would respond: Do you live in fucking Disneyland or do you just smoke weed all the time?

We live in the era of the attention economy, and social media platforms are there to get more of our attention. Why you ask? Because these platforms are “free” and we are their product, not their clients.

We give our attention for free so these platforms can gather data about us and sell it to their clients (companies) that would target us and sell their stuff to us. The stuff that we want or that we think we want or that we don’t want yet but which we will eventually want because there’s a whole industry called MARKETING that studies human behavior in order to explo — ekhm — sell amazing products to us. And we’re surprised companies like Facebook have grown so fast? Well, we’re giving away our attention — which is arguably the most important resource on the market now — for FREE!

And by the looks of it, it’s only going to get worse. Why so pessimistic, you ask? Well, because…

A few years ago I started a comedy/satire vlog on Facebook and some of my videos went (relatively) viral, by my small country’s (Moldova) standards. I would get tens of thousands of views and hundreds of shares. It was the first time in my life I got so much exposure online. It was strange at first, I wasn’t sure how to react, but then after a while my body and mind adjusted and it got really addicting: seeing likes, and comments and people judging and discussing my videos. I couldn’t stop checking my phone. It got so bad at one point that if I didn’t post anything for a while I would start feeling depressed from not getting the attention that gave me the much needed dopamine hit. I would have mood swings, and I would often feel insecure. My sense of worth was almost entirely based on how I was perceived on social media. It took me about a year to get out of that mess.

Frankly, besides learning to deal with social media attention, I naturally grew up with age. But the fact of the matter is: social media highlighted my weaknesses and it rewarded me even more for acting like a drug addict. Every time I’d check my phone after a post I’d see likes and comments and I’d get dopamine hits, I’d feel valued an appreciated. And every time I didn’t get the likes, I’d feel like shit. It was the exact thing that the ex-Facebook executive talked about in 2017, it was the “social-validation feedback loop”:

“It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains… How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? … 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…All of us are jacked into this system, all of our minds can be hijacked. Our choices are not as free as we think they are.” — Sean Parker, ex-Facebook executive, 2017

Part of the reason why scrolling down the Facebook feed is so addicting it’s that it’s partially random: we don’t exactly know what’s going to appear on our screen so we keep scrolling, hoping for something funny or engaging or shocking. It’s almost the exact same mechanism as the slot machine at a Casino. It’s the uncertainty and the potential reward (dopamine hit) that’s so addicting and keeps you hooked.

Now, I’m not an absolutist and I won’t say that all addiction is bad, no. I think we’re all addicted to something. Someone is addicted to hard drugs, someone is addicted to going to the gym, someone is addicted to drinking, and someone is addicted to reading books. See, there’s better addictions and worse addictions. I think you’re smart enough to realize which one is which.

And even the “bad” addictions can be made a little better. You don’t have to quit all social media in order to be mentally healthy. Unlike Jaron Lanier — the pioneer of the virtual reality — I don’t think that quitting everything is the answer. I think using moderation and having more awareness of its psychological dangers is a more pragmatic and realistic answer.

The dopamine hits we get from likes and notifications on Facebook are not the problem per se, we get dopamine hits all the time from eating tasty food, from having sex, from getting a promotion at work. The reward system in our brain is there for a reason, it developed throughout our evolution.

The problem with social media is that it’s a never-ending cycle, it doesn’t have an ultimate goal. (well, it does have a goal for the companies that have our data, but not for us) It exploits this reward system in our brain and it steals our attention, and I would argue that we could use our attention to do much more productive things in our lives.

Rising rates of depression and suicide among teens.

There are also a few studies that show a correlation between the popularization of social media (around 2010) and the drastic increase in depression among teenagers.

Social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff wrote a book called “ The Coddling of the American Mind”, in which they talk about the “safe-space” culture that erupted on American university campuses around 2014, and has spread to some campuses in the UK and Canada. It refers to how school administrations began using the language of safety and danger to describe ideas and speakers, and to demand policies based on the premise that some students are fragile or vulnerable.

Jonathan had an article featured in The Guardian in which he talks about that phenomenon:

Terms such as “safe space”, “trigger warning” and “microaggression” entered the language. These, we believe, are requests made by a generation that was deprived of the necessary quantity of social immunisations. Students now react with a kind of emotional allergic response (often referred to as being “triggered”) to things that previous generations would have either brushed off or argued against.

It’s not the kids’ fault. In the UK, as in the US, parents became much more fearful in the 1980s and 1990s as cable TV and later the internet exposed everyone, more and more, to those rare occurrences of brutal crimes and freak accidents that, as we report in our book, now occur less and less. Outdoor play and independent mobility went down; screen time and adult-supervised activities went up.

Yet free play in which kids work out their own rules of engagement, take small risks, and learn to master small dangers (such as having a snowball fight) turns out to be crucial for the development of adult social and even physical competence. Depriving them of free play stunts their social-emotional growth. Norwegian play researchers Ellen Sandseter and Leif Kennair wrote about the “anti-phobic effects of thrilling experiences.” They noted that children spontaneously seek to add risk to their play, which then extends their coping abilities, which then empowers them to take on even greater challenges. They warned: “We may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play.” They wrote those words in 2011. Over the following few years, their prediction came true.

Mental health statistics in the US and UK tell the same awful story: kids born after 1994 — now known as “iGen” or “Gen-Z” — are suffering from much higher rates of anxiety disorders and depression than did the previous generation (millennials), born between 1982 and 1994.

You can see in the graph above that around 2010 — when platforms like Facebook and Instagram gained traction — the depression rates increased significantly, especially for teenage girls. It may be a coincidence, but I doubt it. The dots connect too easily, social media has to play a major role in our obsessive comparison with each other’s “perfect” versions online. We spend too much time on it for it not to have an effect on our mental well-being.

Here is Jonathan, again, this time at Joe Rogan’s podcast, discussing the increasing rate of suicide.

Even more tragically, we also see this trend in the rate of teenage suicide, which is rising for both sexes in the US and the UK. The suicide rate is up 34% for teenage boys in the US (in 2016, compared with the average rate from 2006–2010). For girls, it is up an astonishing 82%. In the UK, the corresponding increase for teenage boys through to 2017 is 17%, while the increase for girls is 46%. Nobody knows for certain why recent years have seen so much more of a change for girls than boys, but the leading explanation is the arrival of smartphones and social media. Girls use social media more than boys, and they seem to be more affected by the chronic social comparison, focus on physical appearance, awareness of being left out, and social or relational aggression that social media facilitates.

From the point of view of evolution it makes sense — women evolved to rely more on their social skills and relationships within the tribe as they were considerably weaker when taking care of a child. It was all for survival.

But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, right?

I don’t know. I’m not a gypsy hand-reader, I can only speculate and observe patterns. Some appropriate questions here would be:

What do we do with this information? What’s the solution? How do we minimize the negative effects of social media for us and our future children?

Here’s some personal advice I can give you:

I’ve recently installed an app called “Usage time” that tracks the exact minutes I’m spending on each app on my phone, how many times I’ve unlocked the phone each day, and it summarizes everything with nice little graphs. It definitely opened my eyes on how much time I’m spending on my phone. So now I could see how I felt mentally when I used the phone for 2 hours compared to when I used it for 5 hours. What I noticed is anything above 3 hours a day made me a bit more anxious and restless, meaning my thoughts and attention where all over the place, and it was harder to concentrate when I was sitting down to read a book or think about my creative projects.

The optimal amount will vary with each person, and I suggest you download that app or something similar and track your usage so you could have an overall idea of what to work with. For me I found that anything above 3 hours is too much, and it lowers my productivity and sense of happiness. The optimal amount I’d say is 2 hours. For you it could be different, try it and see for yourself.

The technologies we have at our fingertips are so new and groundbreaking that our biology is not yet (and can’t be) adjusted to it. We weren’t evolved to stare at our screens for hours at a time, so it’s natural to feel restless and anxious when we do it too much.

You have to be active, physically and mentally. Exercise, read, think. Create something. Give yourself at least 30 minutes a day where you don’t have any distractions and you can just “be bored”. Like I mentioned in my previous article, we’re forgetting the value of boredom, and it’s a bigger issue than it seems.

Boredom is the birthplace of creativity and experimentation. We need undistracted alone time to feel alive. And we need time outside, somewhere close to trees and stuff. You know, nature. You need that, don’t kid yourself. You’re wired to feel better when nature is closer. Concrete buildings and skyscrapers may be an engineering wonder, but it doesn’t feed your mind. So make time for it.

I used to be that friend that is very wishy-washy when people ask him to go out. In my teenage years I used to be addicted to video games or just sitting in my room and dwelling in thoughts or binge-watching movies. Don’t get me wrong, I still love my alone time. I’m mostly an introvert at my core. But I’m way more balanced of a person than before. I value the time with my friends and understand that I need other people. So I make time for them and for social activities that get me out of my head and out of my smartphone.

Yes, I realize that in this era the way we socialize has already changed. Most of it is online, and that’s fine, it’s easier to reach each other and keep in touch. However, that isn’t a replacement for genuine, face-to-face interactions. It is just an alternative. Which means that the “old-school” way of socializing should be your priority. Don’t underestimate the healing power of laughing out loud with friends after one of them broke a glass full of beer at a restaurant or when they started dancing like ballerinas in the middle of the parking lot to Celine Dion’s “Your Heart Will Go On” and you were dying from laughter. (That’s mild, I have weirder stories)

You need other people, even if you’re the biggest introvert on Earth. So when that friend asks you to go out, do it, unless you have a real reason not to. You can stare at your phone later, it’s always in your pocket. That friend isn’t. That friend is a human being that needs to connect to people the same way you need to. So don’t be so cynical and appreciate the people close to you, they won’t live forever.

All of the above will hopefully get you out of your own head, and at least for a while you’ll stop comparing yourself to these “perfect” people from your social media feed, and you’ll start living and being more compassionate towards yourself and others. Maybe then you’ll have some more joy in life. Maybe then you’ll stop trying to be “happy” and
you’ll just be.

But then again, I’m not an expert, there is more nuanced advice out there from professionals that study human psychology, and I do happen to agree with Jonathan Haidt on this one. Here’s what he had to say:

What can we do to reverse these trends? How can we raise kids strong enough to handle the ordinary and extraordinary challenges of life? There’s a powerful piece of folk wisdom: prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child. As soon as you grasp the concept of antifragility, you understand why that folk saying is true.

“Antifragility” refers to the concept that Nassim Taleb invented in his book “Antifragile”, it describes a small but very important class of systems that gain from shocks, challenges, and disorder. Bones and the banking system are two examples; both get weaker — and more prone to catastrophic failure — if they go for a long time without any stressors and then face a major challenge. Our immune system is the same.

Children’s social and emotional abilities are as antifragile as their immune systems. If we overprotect kids and keep them “safe” from unpleasant social situations and negative emotions, we deprive them of the challenges and opportunities for skill-building they need to grow strong. Such children are likely to suffer more when exposed later to other unpleasant but ordinary life events, such as teasing and social exclusion.

Of course, we should work to make life safer by removing physical dangers from the environment, such as drunk drivers and pedophiles. And of course we should teach children to treat each other with kindness and respect. But we also have to let our kids out to roam the road without us. It’s what most of us over the age of 40 did (even in much more crime-prone decades) and it’s what most kids want to do. At first, it’s scary for parents to let go. But when a seven-year-old jumps up and down with excitement and pride after running an errand on her own, it gets easier to let her go and play in a nearby park with her friends — where they all learn to look out for each other and settle their own disputes.

We can’t guarantee that giving primary school children more independence today will bring down the rate of teenage suicide tomorrow. The links between childhood overprotection and teenage mental illness are suggestive but not definitive, and there are other likely causal threads. Yet there are good reasons to suspect that by depriving our innately antifragile kids of the wide range of experiences they need to become strong, we are systematically stunting their growth. We should let go — and let them grow.

The more I see how addicting smartphones and social media can be, the more I’m thankful that half of my childhood was without these intrusive technologies. I think to myself: at least I know how it feels to be on the other side — the time before the Internet. And now that I think about it, I’m the last generation (’93) that lived through that time. Everyone born after 2008 or so is born into smartphones, their brains develop with smartphones. I bet if you make some research you’d find that 5 year old kids spend more time playing on their tablets than looking at their mom’s face.

Maybe I’m dramatizing, maybe I’m being too stereotypical by talking about the “good old generation” that played with sticks in the sand. But I know that it is
at least partially true.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for social media because I can post my creative projects there and people can see it. I’ve also made quite a few friends through these platforms, and some of my best memories in life are related to social media. However, I can’t ignore the negatives, and I’ve seen these negatives become worse in the last few years. All I want is more awareness and intention from people. I want them to have more control over their attention because knowing how to direct your attention is knowing how to take control of your life.

Our world has changed, and it’s changing faster than ever. Biotech and bio-engineering are the new industries that will probably change the way we think about our human species forever. But before we think about synthesizing entire human organs from scratch and dream about colonizing Mars, we may be better off paying more attention to the way our current digital environment is affecting us and our children.

Photo by Joshua Earle

The stars in the sky may be beautiful, but if we’re too busy starring down our phones we’ll miss the smile on our child’s face, let alone dream about the Cosmos.

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