Following Netflix’s hit documentary The Social Dilemma, many of us are now aware of the negative influence platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have on our well-being. Though, of course, there are so many incredible benefits to social media to be thankful for. We can keep in contact with loved ones all over the globe, feel inspired with a simple click, or build a sense of community from the comfort of our own home. When used in a non-addictive manner, our device and social media can be wonderful tools. They can provide us with an income, connect us with people from the past, expand our social calendar, etc. What isn’t talked about enough though, is the impact that it has on our well-being.
Our well-being represents how happy and healthy we are in addition to our mental health. Aside from physical health and feeling well, it’s also about your confidence and life satisfaction. So, what exactly is the social dilemma and how is it related to our well-being? It’s the idea that billions of people use social media each day, yet the intentions behind these sites are not aligned with social good. According to the Journal of Epidemiology, 2017, “a 5,000-person study found that higher social media use correlated with self-reported declines in mental and physical health and life satisfaction.“ So just how bad is technology and social networking for mental health? Let’s explore some dangers that it poses according to science.
Dopamine and Addiction
The word addiction may not surprise you with in-depth design techniques that provide us with tempting notifications 24/7. What do these push notifications do? They ensure that we check in on our social media accounts, and are constantly connected on WhatsApp and email. It creates an endless spiral of scrolling, staying connected, or perhaps both in many cases. But what toll do endless notifications and 24/7 connection have on our well-being? Firstly, it keeps us glued to our devices. For those that haven’t already done so, check the time spent on your phone over the past week. The figures are often surprisingly high. At this point, ask yourself OK realistically how long do I want to spend on my phone per day? Reducing time spent on our devices is not a walk in the park. Let’s take a look at the science behind its addictive nature.
Dopamine is a chemical produced in the brain that plays a key role in motivating behaviour. It’s also regarded as the “happy hormone” due to the pleasure it produces. While it “is also responsible for people becoming addicted.” So where does social media come into play? According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, 2017 platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok “leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.” Cognitive neuroscientists highlight that rewarding social stimuli, think emojis, and positive responses in the form of messages, comments, likes, etc., activate dopaminergic reward circuits. These stimuli actually motivate this social behaviour. In other words, every notification has the potential to spark a dopamine influx and, in turn, addiction. Addiction, in any form, is dangerous and is just one facet of the social dilemma.
An Intimate Digital Connection and Anxiety
How often do you think people interact with your phone each day? Adults in the US spend an average of 2 – 4 hours a day on their devices. Shockingly, teenagers use it on average for about 8 hours a day. In fact, studies show that “people tapped, swiped and clicked a whopping 2,617 times each day, on average.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are glued to our phones for long periods of time, in fact, in general, it’s the opposite. Numerous small sessions add up to such surprising figures. The continuity of stimulus and information is not only addictive, but it can also provoke anxiety and depression. Studies reveal a correlation between phone usage and anxiety and depression. Why? Because we compulsively check our phones and notifications because of the instant gratification provided.
This instant gratification is dangerous as it pushes us towards new social behaviours and a sense of belonging. As a result, this threatens face-to-face socialising, exposure to nature, physical activity, sleep. Overwhelming amounts of information have significant negative effects. FOMO, the fear of missing out, or inadequacy are also reasons behind the anxiety social media causes. As we watch fun social events on friends’ stories, we feel like we’re missing out. Or as we scroll through filtered photos on Instagram, we may feel inadequate. The consequences of this intimate digital connection are that it creates an illusion of fun and flawlessness. Sites like Instagram also increase the likelihood of comparing ourselves with others. Social media accounts are not a representation of reality. They can create high, false expectations, particularly for the younger generation.
The Control of Social Media
Social media and technology are intricately designed to get the most information out of us as possible. Every like, Google search, time spent looking at a particular photo, etc. enables machines to know each and every one of us inside out. For this reason, the information that appears on our feeds is so appealing to us. We do not see the same ads or articles while browsing as our loved ones. In fact, when you go to your homepage of YouTube or Google, the viewing suggestions are based on this huge accumulation of data. Social media is essentially free because we are the product. Businesses pay to advertise optimally because they have access to our data.
Does this sense of control really influence our well-being? Well, it certainly influences the way we think. We are the product of what we see, read, and listen to. Businesses pay for our data to tempt us with their products and services. It’s also a defiance of privacy as companies manipulate what we view, page visits, or even expose us to fake news. Tempting notifications make us pick up our device over and over again, thus enabling a constant accumulation of data and information about us. According to these companies, a person is worth more the more they check their device because the customers are the advertisers. The accumulation of a person’s data is so in-depth that algorithms are now about to predict our behaviours like what we’ll do next and where we’ll go.
Well-being and The Social Dilemma…
The social dilemma brings awareness to the fact that spending hours a day on a device or platform is an addiction. The anxiety that accidentally leaving the house without our phone brings, or the urge to look at it as soon as we wake up should in itself be a wake-up call. Too much screen time is unhealthy, as is lengthy exposure to social media or emails. 24/7 connection, scrolling, or googling threatens face-to-face communication and time spent doing physical activity or being in nature. The sharp rise in anxiety and depression points to the influx in the use of these platforms, particularly in the younger generation. The control it has on us is justified by how content appears with us in mind. We are susceptible to ads, controlled content, and fake news suggestions due to an immense amount of data accumulated about our private lives and personalities.
So, what are the solutions to the social dilemma? Question the morality of access to such personal information, google what you want to read, and search for YouTube videos instead of just clicking on the suggested content. More importantly, reduce the time spent on your device. Hold out and resist the urge to check your phone so often. After all, it’s those small sessions that accumulate to such shocking screen time figures. Change your checking habits and turn off non-essential notifications. Deleting social media may not be viable for you, and that’s OK. What you can do is make a concerted effort to avoid the susceptibility of instant gratification for your well-being. Invest your time in ways that help you grow, not in tools with the power to shape your beliefs and behaviours.
Have you seen the documentary yet? How does your device and these platforms affect you personally?