Facebook Is Making Us Sick
How it addicts us and the psychological toll it takes
Whether you love Facebook and Instagram or hate them, your opinion is likely strong. Perhaps ironically, an “engaging” argument about the merits or faults of Facebook “on Facebook” would likely frame the issue as black or white.
But like most things, the truth lies somewhere in between. We pay for free, limitless social connection with the price of our privacy. The thrill of follower engagement comes at the cost of our personal data and advertiser targeting.
Facebook would, no doubt, argue those points with carefully coiffed corporate statements about the sophomoric ideal of a socially connected world filled with rainbows that end racism and unicorns that crap coronavirus cures.
One thing they can’t dispute, however, is how its platform makes you feel.
Our mood and our stress level reveals the impact that these platforms have. No, it’s not an instantaneous surge of dopamine like doing a line of blow. But drop social media entirely for a week and see how you feel.
While more studies are needed to officially recognize FAD as a behavioral disorder, some studies have shown it can cause users to lose control of their use and negatively impact the six characteristics of addiction disorders: salience, tolerance, mood modification, relapse, withdrawal and conflict.
Take a second and really be honest about your social media use.
We all know the risks generally, right? Sure, we know it’s bad to get sucked into anything for too long. But, tell me, has your use ever been excessive? Have you compulsively refreshed feeds for updates?
When you post something, do you post and put your phone away? Or do you post and keep your phone by your side ready to feel the excitement of vibrating engagement updates?
Have you ever blocked out the family during dinner? When you’re out at a bar with friends, do you get sucked into social feeds or dating apps? Have you ever lost focus on a work call because of a sudden social alert? Do you feel the nervous anxiety of FOMO when you haven’t opened your feed in days?
Don’t worry: I’m not here to diagnose you, and I couldn’t even if I wanted to. This story is about what social media is doing and has done to us.
Let’s face the hard truth: Our phones have become beeping, blinking, vibrating entry points to a digital dopamine chase. We’re like crack addicts stumbling through the streets like zombies — our minds consumed by something no one else sees.
I wonder what a jonesing crack addict thinks about? Oh right. More crack.
Instead we’re looking to score validation and inclusion in a group. We’re looking for salvation from our existential dread. We want to feel accepted.
“Like casinos, slot machines and potato chips, Facebook is designed to keep you immersed, to disorient you just enough so you lose track of the duration and depth of your immersion in the experience, and to reward you just enough that you often return, even when you have more edifying, rewarding or pleasurable options for your time and effort within your reach,” writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in Antisocial Media. “This is not an accident.”
Hitting the crack pipe
Everywhere I go I see heads down and fingers scrolling; awareness of the present disrupted by a little device. We are addicted to our little engagement screen — always seeking external validation from the digital gaze of others.
With our sleek, ever-updating magical device, we capture our image, punch up our pic with filters and push it out for admiration in just a few taps.
And then we wait for our little reward. We’re Skinner’s rat, pressing on the lever for food. We don’t get the attention we desire every time — so we press harder and with more purpose. We’re subtly conditioned over time, as we begin to believe that we’ve figured out the formula. We think:
If I just cup my hands around the setting sun. If I make my sharp cheekbones pop through the shadows. If I let the wind run wild with my hair. If I wear a seductive golden-hour stare. If I post just after work when everyone’s out at the bar (looking at their phones).
Or maybe I’ll get angry and try to stir up controversy. My outbursts seem to make a lot of people talk. The comments aren’t always good, but I’m making people pay attention to me. Maybe I’ll scream about the President or post pictures of refrigerator trucks outside hospitals.
Intermittent reinforcement is a powerful thing.
B.F. Skinner, referenced before, was a well-known psychologist and behaviorist. He used rats to study “operant conditioning,” which is essentially how to train or teach specific behaviors based on a reward schedule.
A reward of food for, say, pressing a lever is an example of positive reinforcement. A bad experience like, say, an electric shock for moving to the wrong side of the cage would be an example of negative reinforcement.
All organisms desire positive rewards and avoid negative rewards. Through the use of these rewards, one can “condition” a rat (or human) to behave in a specific way.
From a neuroscience perspective, the learning process triggers the brain to deliver dopamine in anticipation of an expected reward. The release of this neurotransmitter reinforces our behavior. Dopamine is what motivates us to do what will give us a reward, like hitting the bottle or the craps table.
Intermittent or variable reinforcement, on the other hand, is more unpredictable. Rewards are given out based on a random schedule and result in addict like obsessive behavior, which has been demonstrated in relation to smart phone alerts that constantly interrupt us throughout our day.
This technique is what Vegas tycoons use in their casinos to suck desperate players into slot machines and bleed them dry. It’s also how social media networks work. Sometimes you get a flood of likes, posts and followers, and sometimes your echo chamber doesn’t have a voice.
But just like a cocaine addict, we’re always looking for our next hit. We want that dopamine shot straight to the brain. Our neurotransmitter level spikes when others tell you they like your posts.
Someone else out there is thinking about you; your existential dread slides to the side. It’s too bad that fleeting connection doesn’t fill you up inside.
“The experience of posting images to Facebook and Instagram is habit-forming. People often desire approval, or at least acknowledgement, from their peers,” writes Vaidhyanathan. “Clicking ‘like’ on a photo says, ‘I’m thinking about you.’ A comment could indicate even deeper attention. The commerce in attention — a sort of ‘gift economy’ of time and energy — is powerful and valuable.”
What’s in a like?
What is that connection really? What’s the substance beneath a “like?” Some simply like everything that they see, hoping for reciprocity in kind when they want their fix. We don’t ever stop and really think about that, do we?
While some might argue that a lot can be expressed through an emoji or an icon, I’d argue that the meaning is flimsy at best. Communication in spoken word is often even a complete mess. Meanings can be missed, and intentions are invisible.
How many times has a text conversation led you to a misunderstanding? The face, at least, reveals micro-expressions to give away hints.
But a two-dimensional icon? Where’s the meaning in that?
Does a like signal approval? How about agreement? Does it mean you’re pretty? Is it even directed at you or is it directed at what you’re doing? Can it tell you why they liked you today, but didn’t yesterday? Maybe it’s what you’re wearing? Maybe it’s your clever caption?
But you don’t really care. The only thing that matters is that someone likes you. They took time aside from their chaotic and over-programmed life, and you occupied their brain space. You stole their attention for a second of their precious little life. Every heart or thumbs up or smiley emoji is a message to you. You belong. You’re part of us.
This should come as no surprise to the non-addicted, but there is significant correlation between narcissism and FAD. Research has even shown that “fear of missing out” (FOMO) is part of the anxiety-laden withdrawal effect from restricted Facebook use.
So just like Skinner trained his rats — Facebook manipulates our obsession with its platform. It tries to capture as much of our attention as it can. Since users are “the product” on Facebook and Instagram, the more of our attention they capture, the more of our data they have to chop up, segment and target for advertisers.
How does our behavior change?
As anyone who has worked in digital agency role knows, there are specific tactics that increase the likelihood that your social media posts will draw engagement.
High-quality, perfectly composed pictures, jaw-dropping imagery and boast-worthy accomplishments tend to increase engagement. On the other hand, incendiary posts about politics, conspiracy theories or any other contentious issue will also draw engagement. Commenting on current, trending and newsworthy events is preferable to evergreen topics.
There are many recommendations widely available for free on the internet, but we learn from experience. Over time, with enough use, social media networks train us which kind of content to publish to draw the greatest levels of engagement (as well as our desired dopamine hits).
If balanced, thoughtful and meticulously sourced content doesn’t draw interest (which it doesn’t typically), then we’re simply not going to post it. If, on the other hand, we learn that simplistic, transparently biased and emotionally charged opinions on divisive issues boost engagement, then what do you think we’re going to do?
As Zuckerberg himself says, the point of Facebook is social connection. We learn to post what gives us that connection with others.
The problem is that algorithms favor emotionally charged content that increases user engagement — so we stretch the truth, we fake our lives and happiness or we become outrageous. Many bad actors even use this loophole to spread misinformation, such as what has occurred during the pandemic.
“Facebook’s algorithm rewards and encourages engagement with content that provokes strong emotions, which is exactly the kind of content we warn patients to doubt and carefully assess, since false information is often packaged as novel and sensational,” write New York Times Reporters Seema Yasmin and Craig Spencer in “‘But I Saw It on Facebook’; Hoaxes Are Making Doctors’ Jobs Harder.”
What is the ultimate effect?
So, Facebook uses manipulative casino-like tactics to addict users to its platform, relying on the brain’s own neurochemical responses to feed our obsession. Once our attention is in its vice grip, Facebook trains us to post content that provokes extreme emotions, like hyperbole, exaggerations, angry opinions, rants, etc.
FAD is bad, but all digital technology is “supposed” to be sticky, right? Holding your focus is critical in today’s attention economy. And maybe it doesn’t matter if people begin to oversimplify their opinions. Maybe “punching up” achievements and deceptively polishing experiences isn’t a big deal.
But the question is where does this leave us psychologically? Do we feel more connected? Or has it turned us into a crack addicts chasing a high?
In his examination of addiction, “The Craving Mind,” Judson Brewer asked just that question. Brewer cites “An Investigation into the Problematic Use of Facebook” conducted by Zach Lee and colleagues.
“Lee’s research team found that a preference for online social interaction correlated with deficient mood regulation and negative outcomes such as a diminished sense of self-worth and increased social withdrawal,” writes Brewer. “Let me say that again: online social interaction increased social withdrawal. People obsessively went on Facebook to feel better, yet afterward felt worse.”
Why does this happen? Well, there are two reasons.
On the one hand, when you see your friend’s “perfect family” on luxurious, exotic vacations, it doesn’t boost your self-esteem. No, it makes you feel like your life sucks. From your shitty drab cubical in a job you hate, the Jones’ life looks one hell of a lot more desirable.
Granted, what you see on social is dependent on your connections and interests, but what you see is not reality. It is the carefully curated, crème de la crème that society has to offer. And, in all likelihood, it’s a reality that you will never have or will sink into debt chasing.
The other reason relates to Skinner’s rats. We have been trained to go to Facebook to feel good. It’s where we get our dopamine hits and social acceptance. Brewer explains that we also learn to go to Facebook to avoid feeling bad.
In other words, when we’re depressed, we turn to Facebook to cheer ourselves up. The problem is that this doesn’t really work. We haven’t addressed the root of our depression — so it actually leaves us more depressed. It’s like an alcoholic trying to drink away a bad job; the job is still there in the morning.
What should be done?
Facebook isn’t the devil, but it certainly isn’t god either. While we shouldn’t burn it down, we also shouldn’t sing its praises, as it has done a lot of harm.
Social media continues to be studied, but many of the initial assessments of psychological impact are not good. To me with my agency chops, it’s a data collection machine that happens to also provide human connections, which it tries to bill as its only intention (this is not remotely believable btw Zuck).
To be sure, Facebook isn’t going to cause you to wither away and die. You’re not going to have a seizure from Facebook withdrawal. Physiologically, there are many more dangerous addictions that our society must learn to treat.
Psychologically, however, there is a significant negative impact upon users. Addiction to something that only makes you feel worse about yourself is sure to have highly negative long-term effects. And that’s before you consider how Facebook can manipulate the tone of the content you see or the sheer volume of misinformation and disturbing, hate-filled content on the platform.
With social media platforms so ubiquitous in society today, it is shocking to me that we have not built educational programs and tools that teach children (and even adults) how to use social media responsibly.
The technology does have its merits, and it can play a valuable role in allowing us to stay connected with friends and family anywhere in the world. But we need to use it purposefully. We can’t use it as a tool to artificially change our moods or dictate our self-esteem. Like any other tool, it works best when we use it intentionally — thoughtfully with a specific purpose in mind.
If we can teach ourselves to use it responsibly, then its impact will be more positive than negative. If not, we’ll just continue to use it like a crack pipe with disempowering psychological side effects.
More than anything else, it’s increasingly important for us to consciously consider the sometimes-subtle ways that new social technologies can influence our personalities and mental well-being. It’s always a good idea to keep track of the time spent on social and take a break every now and then.
Russell Weigandt is a former senior vice president at top public relations agencies, where he managed corporate reputation for Fortune 500 and startup clients.