Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff likened social media addiction to smoking by saying companies like Facebook should be regulated “exactly the same way you regulated the cigarette industry,” putting the safety of consumers before the financial gains of companies.
How can you compare something we know to be deadly to a habit like social media, you ask?
Let’s review recent facts.
In a New Yorker article, Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook’s business this way: “This is an inherently cultural thing. It’s at the intersection of technology and psychology, and it’s very personal.” Employees at Facebook are not psychologists working to improve mental health, yet some of the tactics the company has deployed have been engineered to trigger psychological responses in people.
A few years ago, the company started experimenting with people’s newsfeeds to see if negative news would make people more pessimistic online and if positive posts would make them more kind. The social media giant did not disclose this experiment or ask for permission from its users, but according to a New York Times article, “users consent to this kind of manipulation when they agree to its terms of service.”
It could be argued that this psychological experiment is what led to the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In the aftermath of the event, it was revealed that the personal data of 87 million people had been harvested by a researcher and sold to the consultancy, which is known to use “psychographic techniques to manipulate voter behavior.” According to The New Yorker, Facebook had known about the problem for years but never mentioned anything to its users.
The fallout from that experiment has been felt across democracies, as Cambridge Analytica allegedly had influence on the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the U.S. elections in 2016 and the Kenya elections in 2017.
But What Of Addiction?
There have been many studies that have concluded that social media addiction is real. But it’s not just Facebook. There are over 2 billion Facebook users worldwide, about 500 million tweets are sent daily on Twitter, 95 million images are uploaded to Instagram daily and on YouTube, over 400 hours of video are uploaded per minute. Those figures alone should tell us something. In fact, all social media is addictive by design. Maximizing engagement is in their business model. The more time you spend scrolling and clicking, the better for business. The infinite newsfeed and notifications you receive are personalized to draw and keep you in. The more the advertiser has your attention, the more sales. And so on.
As it turns out, it has been easy to get people addicted. Here are some of the reasons why:
• We are social creatures: The need to be connected and to interact with others is universal. The feeling of belonging is something we crave as human beings.
• The need for validation: Whether it’s “likes,” “follows” or smile emojis, we are driven by validation for our behavior and the thoughts we share.
• FOMO: The fear of missing out, a phenomenon first identified in 2000 by marketing strategist Dan Herman and later allegedly coined by Patrick McGinnis, is apparently one of the stronger drivers of social network use. According to a 2013 Fix infographic, 67% of users feared they would “miss something” without their social media fix.
• The ego needs a platform: And social media is the perfect place for it. According to researchers, the ego desires recognition, which can, in turn, drive us to disclose our personal information, pictures of ourselves, etc. in order to earn “strokes.”
• Brain chemistry: Social networks are physically addictive as well as psychologically addictive. A study from Harvard University showed that self-disclosure online fires up a part of the brain that also lights up when engaging in pleasurable activities. In some studies, frequent social media usage has caused detrimental effects in other aspects of people’s lives, leaving some researchers to view the problem as an addiction.
One could argue that, at this point, social media platforms rule the world. They are the purveyors of culture. However, they have refused to take responsibility for that power or regulate the fatal consequences of their product.
Maybe the time has come to treat those companies that harvest data to elicit addictive behaviors like any other dangerous product. We need to regulate how the data is used before it causes more irreparable harm to society.