Social media use has risen exponentially over the last few years. Today, 91% of 16-24 year olds use the internet for social networking. But the last 25 years have also seen anxiety and depression rates rise by 70%. Could it be that social media, the lauded connector of humankind, has actually become our own worst enemy?
Past Facebook executives like Sean Parker, the company’s first president (and founder of Napster), and Chamath Palihapitiya, VP of user growth, came out recently to express their regret over having been a part of what they consider a mass and deleterious programming of society.
So what exactly is the problem?
The social media effect
The growth of social media has provided a platform for making connections, finding information, and achieving a global voice. But it’s also created a narcissistic and addictive culture driven by digital notifications, comparisons, approval and affirmation. Add to that the anonymity that enables users to launch ignorant political tirades, cyber bullying and bashing of complete strangers, and you’ve got a recipe for a social disaster.
Social media is creating generations of individuals, fully connected, yet essentially isolated and unable to separate what they see on screen from reality. And it’s taking a toll on our mental, physiological and social wellbeing.
Social media and the brain
Seeing comments and likes makes people happy. It releases a surge of dopamine into the brain, making people feel better about themselves through affirmation form others. And yet that satisfaction is only skin deep. A Royal Society of Public Health survey found that the top social media sites induced feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and self-loathing in users who viewed the online world as the standard, and found themselves lacking. Yet despite the decreased happiness and life satisfaction of Facebook users, they continue to return time and again for another hormone rush—because it’s addicting.
According to Parker, Facebook was built on the notion of how to consume people’s time and conscious attention. He said that he, like others behind social networking, understood the “vulnerability in human psychology” that would attract people to social media again and again, and then exploited it by creating a “social-validation feedback loop” in the brain. The result? Like Pavlov’s dog, when we see a notification, the dopamine comes in, and we become happy and feel affirmed by the world. In the process we’re being programed to return to the screen for “social” approval—and lose ourselves in it.
Social media and physiology
On the surface, social media and online networking is about connectivity. But it in fact tends to perpetuate feelings of isolation—because when all is said and done, you’re merely interacting with a screen, and being driven by comparisons to what appears to be the behind-the-screen ideal. The perception and feeling of isolation can cause physiological reactions of stress responses in the body—which in turn increase the risk of illness and early death.
Social media and social aptitude
On-screen engagements are also decreasing social aptitude for real-world interactions. Devoid of social cues and reasons to speak with others by voice, children and adults alike are getting lost in digital conversations and worlds, leaving communication skills but a distant memory—or worse, non-existent. People are spending hours and days of their lives scrolling through social feeds, brazenly arguing and abusing strangers and becoming polarized. Parker says he can only imagine what social media is doing to young brains. Palihapitiya said, “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works… eroding the core foundations of how people behave by and between each other.”
Whatever side of the social media debate you might be on, one thing is clear: Palihapitiya and Parker have left Facebook behind—and Palihapitiya won’t let his children open an account. So is social media really all bad? Or can simple awareness of its negative aspects prevent this programming? Only time, and the future stats, will tell.