The perils of social media

1_P2ly9bSClopyi9qqDAkkYAPhoto by Marc Schäfer on Unsplash

Social media has received some devastating blows recently. Cambridge Analytica – the data firm who helped to position the clownish imbecile Donald Trump atop the American Empire – were caught red-handed stealing data for 50 million Facebook users. An associate boasted that the data enabled them to predict a person’s neuroticism, agreeableness, political views, and much more. Without this information, Trump may have lost the election, going so far as to casually boast about it. It’s the tip of a colossal data-collection iceberg that is destroying our trust in social networks, with their blatant and appalling disregard for operating within ethical boundaries.

This was likely a big factor in the recent #DeleteFacebook movement, which encourages users to quit permanently. For the first time since its inception, Facebook reported a decline in U.S users in 2017, though other apps such as Instagram and Twitter are steadily rising. In addition to quitting entirely, roughly 40% of Facebook users are starting to take extended breaks, often deleting the app from their phones.

Fighting against shady data-usage is important, but what’s more insidious are the effects that social networks have on our mental health, particularly for young people. One report showed that symptoms of ill mental health are increased by 15% for children using social media. Facebook and Instagram’s terms of reference state that you shouldn’t be using their services if under the age of 13, but do absolutely nothing to enforce the rules. Why would they? Even pro-capitalist media powerhouses such as the Financial Times and the Economist are calling for more regulation against these alarmingly immoral organisations.

Addiction is a fundamental goal for many social networks, and they’re designed with this in mind. Our primal desire to be liked results in positive chemical rushes whenever somebody validates our post, so we develop a habit in which our eyes compulsively return to the little red circle. The concept of a endless feed utilises the variable ratio schedule, which shows that people become more obsessed with something when rewarded irregularly, rather than steadily. Being presented with the occasional entertaining post is what hooks you.

We don’t sign our children up to pre-credited gambling accounts, hand them a gram of cocaine and suggest that they let loose for the weekend. Yet these things exploit the exact same dopamine-based reward system as social media, with addiction as a dreadful consequence. It effortlessly pulls on our attention, distracting us from vital problems such as climate change, poverty, or Trump’s totalitarianism. The precious hours of our lives are being consumed and vomited into the coffers of Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk, who “apologise for their mistakes” but not their repulsive business practices.

Even former leaders of tech companies are rallying for change. The Center for Humane Technology is a non-profit organisation founded by such folk, with the intention to spread the idea of compassionate design starting from a foundation of vulnerable human instincts, as opposed to attention theft at any cost.

“What began as a race to monetize our attention is now eroding the pillars of our society: mental health, democracy, social relationships, and our children.” – The Center for Humane Technology

In addition to being attention whores, social media has a devastating effect on our self-esteem. It enables us to compare ourselves to other people on an unprecedented scale, creating pressure to be as allegedly perfect as everyone else, and leaving us in a cesspool of self-loathing. Life isn’t how Facebook and Instagram portrays it; disappointment, rejection, and pain are nowhere to be seen. When such impending things do happen, you can be forgiven for shaking a fist at a God who undeniably hates you.

Any intention to better your life is made more difficult by social media’s blissfully sedative effects. Why bother trying to learn something that you’re passionate about when you can spend hours scrolling through insipid content? Nobody likes discomfort, so social media sucks us in like a prostitute desperate for a fix. The exceptional is cast aside in favour of dull mediocrity.

Clambering over the proverbial fence for a moment, social media does have some positive uses. It’s an effective way to stay in touch with old friends, even if only contacting them once in a blue moon. Many businesses rely on social media for its powerful ability to reach customers, and would struggle desperately without it; movements such as #DeleteFacebook would do well to remember this. Promoting anything (e.g. this blog) would be infinitely harder. A research agency found that Facebook users have more close ties with the people within their network than other internet users. In addition, they noted moderate associations between social media use and trust, plentiful close friends, greater amounts of social support, and higher civic support. It’s easy to be dogmatic about such an immoral industry, but important to realise that it’s not all bad.

Despite the positives, the evidence for the ills of social media are overwhelming. If you’d rather not take the drastic plunge and quit cold turkey, you might want to consider restricting your usage – Chrome extensions such as BlockSite allow you to easily do so. With less use, it’s likely that your life will improve. Just be prepared for the fact that by continuing to use the apps, your data probably will be illegally mined in order to influence your opinions, and to persuade you that you’ll be undeniably happier if you purchase those fetching shoes. The whole structure is completely vulnerable to manipulation, and no amount of new regulation is likely to change that. Greed always finds a way to exploit, and with two billion connected people, social media companies have the power to influence an unfathomable number of people with terrifying precision. Is it a risk worth taking?

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