ALERT: Social Media May Be Hurting America…..and the rest of the world

Could social media be addicting and afflicting America?  Is it causing a national depression, above and beyond what Trump is doing to the country?  Is Facebook a threat to public health?  According to Silicon Valley, psychologists and sociologists, the answers to these questions are: “Yes!”.

In fact, perhaps the most sobering warning comes from former Facebook VP Chamath Palihapitiya, who joined Facebook in 2007 and became its vice president for user growth. He recently  told an audience at Stanford Graduate School of Business that he felt “tremendous guilt” about the company he helped make: “I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works.”

Facebook Execs Admit Additive Nature of Their Service

In his comments at Stanford, Palihapitiya pointed to the “short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works,” he said, referring to online interactions driven by “hearts, likes, thumbs-up.” “No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.” Mr. Palihapitiya isn’t alone.  As per the Verge, former product manager at Facebook, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, has said in his book Chaos Monkeys that Facebook lies about its ability to influence individuals based on the data it collects on them.

And this past November, former Facebook president Sean Parker said he has become a “conscientious objector” to social media, indicating that Facebook and others had succeeded by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”   In an interview with Axios, he told interviewer Mike Allen that the thought process behind building the social media giant was: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” Added Parker at the time: “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”   Surprisingly, Facebook isn’t actually disagreeing with the social media naysayers.  In response to Palihapitiya’s comments, the social media giant posted a response:

“Facebook was a very different company back [when Chamath worked at Facebook] and as we have grown we have realised how our responsibilities have grown too. We take our role very seriously and we are working hard to improve. We’ve done a lot of work and research with outside experts and academics to understand the effects of our service on well-being, and we’re using it to inform our product development. We are also making significant investments more in people, technology and processes, and – as Mark Zuckerberg said on the last earnings call – we are willing to reduce our profitability to make sure the right investments are made.”

Facebook subsequently posted at its website descriptions of a healthy use of social media ( interacting with people, sharing messages, posts, comments, and reminiscing about past interactions) and unhealthy usage (reading information without interacting with others and clicking on more links or “liking” more posts than the average user)  This might be the first public acknowledgment from the company that its product can have detrimental effects on social media users.

Facebook is a Public Health Threat

Facebook is “the new cigarettes”, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff declared the World Economic Forum‘s Annual Meeting in Switzerland   “It’s addictive, it’s not good for you, there’s people trying to get you to use it that even you don’t understand what’s going on.”  Other industry observers have jumped on board:  “The incentives to manipulate attention are all about preying on the weakest elements of human psychology.”

In addition, 54% of respondents said they feel no one knows them well, and four in 10 reported they “lack companionship,” their “relationships aren’t meaningful” and they “are isolated from others.”  Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna’s chief medical officer for behavioral health, said the findings of the study suggest that the problem has reached “epidemic” proportions, rivaling the risks posed by tobacco and obesity.

It may feel that we are picking on Facebook…..and we are because of its size and influence.   However, other social media outlets such as  Linked In, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Snapchat, Reddit, Flickr and Google Plus are all having a similar impact upon the American psyche.   Of course, one need not spend much time on Twitter to see what it has done to our Presidency……   This year, Psychology Today reported that recent study by UK disability charity Scope, of 1500 Facebook and Twitter users surveyed, 62 percent reported feeling inadequate and 60 percent reported feelings of jealousy from comparing themselves to other users.  This study echoed findings by a 2015 study on the effects of Facebook use on mental health, in which researchers at the University of Missouri discovered that regular use could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.

Does Social Media Kill People?

“The social media paradox” describes how social media have allowed us to become more connected to other people than at any time in history — and yet many Americans report feeling more lonely and isolated than ever before. A study funded by Cigna suggests that  Facebook and other Web-based communities — as well as other things in modern life — are boosting levels of loneliness that are undermining the nation’s mental and physical health.  In fact, it found that loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity.

The survey found that nearly half of Americans reporting they feel alone, isolated, or left out at least some of the time.  The nation’s 75 million millennials (ages 23-37) and Generation Z adults (18-22) are lonelier than any other U.S. demographic and report being in worse health than older generations.  A more recent study found that even Baby Boomers are disenfranchised.  “About one in 11 Amer­i­cans aged 50 and older lacks a spouse, part­ner or liv­ing child, cen­sus fig­ures . That amounts to about eight mil­lion peo­ple in the U.S. with­out close kin, the main source of companionship in old age, and their share of the pop­u­la­tion is pro­jected to grow.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also warns that the potential for negative effects of social media in young kids and teens, including cyber-bullying and “Facebook depression”  is a real concern.  It found social media to be addictive, triggers sadness,  envy, and social isolation.   Ironically, having all those friends actually hinders social interaction.  A study found that more friends on social media doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better social life—there seems to be a cap on the number of friends a person’s brain can handle, and it takes actual social interaction (not virtual) to keep up these friendships. So feeling like you’re being social by being on Facebook doesn’t work. Since loneliness is linked to myriad health and mental health problems (including early death), getting real social support is important. Virtual friend time doesn’t have the therapeutic effect as time with real friends.

Writer Simon Sinek summed it up nicely in a recent interview:

The use of social media actually creates a “daisy chain of dopamine” upon which we actually become addicted. Dopamine has been traditionally considered the “pleasure chemical” of the brain.  It now is seen as a chemical that creates “want”. Neuro-imaging studies reveal the portions of the brain that are involved when engaged in social media. It triggers three key networks in the brain – the “mentalizing network”, the “the self-referential cognition network” and the “reward network”.

For adolescents and teenagers, this very neuroscience of social media overuse can be dangerous. The adolescent brain is a work in progress, and neuroscientists have found that the prefrontal cortex, the area of decision making and social interactions, is still growing during adolescence. Given the nature of the neural connections of the human brain, the portions that are used constructively, continue to grow and develop, while those that are misused grow in unhealthy ways.

Harvard Medical School’s newsletter how addiction hijacks the brain.  The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, a cluster of nerve cells lying underneath the cerebral cortex.

All drugs of abuse, from nicotine to heroin, cause a particularly powerful surge of dopamine in the brain.  Sharon Begley, senior writer at The Boston Globe and author of Can’t Just Stop: An Investigation of Compulsions, notes the psychological reason behind why people compulsively respond to emails and social media.  Research from the 1950s seemed to suggest that because dopamine is pleasurable, it’s pleasure to which people become addicted.   “Once you get a taste of the pleasure that awaits you, your reward-expectation circuitry lights up like a winning slot machine. When there’s no payoff, dopamine levels crash.”

So there you have it.  You may be addicted.  The world might even be addicted to a compulsive technology.  Next time you drop everything to respond to that text or that “like”,  consider whether you are really liking yourself.

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