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Image courtesy of: Anton Deloy

Social Media Is The New Smoking, And You Are Addicted

How many packs of “likes” are you chaining per day?

Her heart raced so fast that she was sure she was going to have a heart attack. She paced her speed up. She was anxious to get home. One could even see the sweat dripping down her face, in an attempt to take a shortcut, she jaywalked across a wide street, zigzagging her way through it. She almost got hit by a truck, but she didn’t care. She is not concerned. She is just a few meters from her place. She has only one goal in mind. She needs it so bad, she’s losing her breath briskly. She would never admit it, but she is hooked. She can’t live with it. Almost there, she opened the doorway nervously, walked into the living room, frenetically searches for it. She found it. She heaved a sigh of relief as she turns it on. She has successfully plugged her phone, she’s back to Instagram scrolling and double-tapping perfect fantasies. She exists now. She is online again. Lisa won’t admit it, but she is addicted to social media.

Never before a habit has invaded the world so fast as the contagious spread of social media. The screen-staring black-mirrored fantasy has gotten the best of us. The use of social media has seeped into our daily lives, is merely difficult not to see anyone who has engaged in any of these habit-forming technologies. Nosediving their lives away. Silicon Valley wants constant attention from us. That it’s the core idea of their business, unfortunately for us, they are getting away with it, we are hooked to their products and crave more of them.

No doubt at all, here we have an industry that is selling a product that is addictive-by-design — just like nicotine. A generation ago that was cigarettes, today the addiction comes in the form of innocent, almost harmless “likes”. And that is part of the game, the more time and data people yield, the more social media companies can sell to their advertisers. According to The Economist, last November Facebook made record quarterly profits, up nearly 80% on the same quarter last year. It’s a highly lucrative business, and they won’t stop until they squeeze the last cents out of it.

Social media giants need to stop pretending they are changing the world, making it a better place and come forward and admit that they are deliberately selling a product that is, in fact, addictive and harmful for us.

“It’s not hard for me to imagine that in 20 years from now we find that what social media does to our brains is equivalent to what smoking does to our lungs”. — Yancey Strickler - Kickstarter’s CEO

Social media is known for having complex algorithms to capture and manipulate our consumption, maximizing the higher amount of engagement possible. There is even a term for this in Silicon Valley: Brain Hacking. Tristan Harris, the former Google design ethicist says that is like having a “slot machine in your pocket”. Just like in the gambling business, social media companies use intermittent variable rewards to get their users hooked. “Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s “good for business” as Mr. Harris states in his article “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind

According to a recent article by Hackernoon people spend over four hours a day on their mobile phones in 2017, and about 5,4 years in a lifetime. That’s almost five times more what one person spent socializing (1,4 years) over their entire life. It’s about time that we collectively became aware of this new disease.

I agree that social media have enormous benefits: from career propelling, to effortlessly bringing contact with people living in developing countries, and giving voice to people for advocacy. But, we should be also skeptical about the hidden influence of it. At the end of the day, they are big businesses and their only goal is to sell, no matter what.

According to some experts, social media may have a major impact on our mental health. People get sucked in numbers and notifications impulsed by a reward system — which is the core stimuli of most apps. Users get a high rush of dopamine every time they receive a notification according to one study. The release of dopamine is the basis factor for nicotine, cocaine, and gambling addictions. It’s like brain candy for our neurons, meaning that social media imitates natural pleasurable experiences, like eating or having sex, which makes it very addictive, setting up a reinforce behavior in our brain. Some people might experience social exclusion if they haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet. Just as it happens with social smoking, social media is at times used by individuals who often feel pressured of missing out, while others might feel isolated, depressed and suffer from anxiety according to a psychological study carried out by the University of Pittsburgh.

One doesn’t exist until one is acknowledged on social media.

The evidence is out there, and in front of our eyes, we cannot ignore it anymore — like we did with smoking back in the day. Silicon Valley faces a crucial imperative to tell the public about their morally questionable practices they have —unfortunately—learned from the tobacco industry, which is, setting an addiction that is extremely good for business. Like big tobacco did, companies like Facebook are already targeting children, as future consumers, and there is something deeply disturbing about this.

The social damage is clearly obvious. Social media has invaded our lives and impact our routines so significantly, for example in the case of productivity is especially corrosive to focus and deep work, and let’s not forget the recently and enormous negative impact on democracy as well.

The way information is being consumed and how is affecting the current political landscape is yet to be determined, but we are already facing the consequences of an unregulated industry. “Everyone who has scrolled through Facebook knows how, instead of imparting wisdom, the system dishes out compulsive stuff that tends to reinforce people’s biases” stated The Economist last November with their issue “Social media’s threat to democracy”.

Most powerfully, these companies still have an opportunity to set the record straight. They could put up warnings about excessive usage and consumption — just like the food and tobacco companies had to required by law. Their algorithms are the redeeming feature of their future, they could still adapt them to fight misinformation, the spread of fake news and protect users from click-baiting malpractices. But these changes are probably cut against their business models designed to compulsively attract attention, which means that they won’t step forward, and this probably will lead to imposed regulations in the future all around the globe.

There is a huge need for a solid set of guidelines for responsible regulation. Technology companies move way too fast for real law or governing authorities to keep up and regulate social media companies properly is a tremendous legislative challenge, still to be debated.

Connectivity increases with every day that passes, yet somehow our social contact is more broken nowadays than it was before. It makes me wonder, as with smoking, will there be social media tables in restaurants in the future? Will social media consumption in large doses cause some sort of social cancer? Only time will tell how the future landscape will play, yet one day social media might have to include mandatory warnings like the ones present in cigarette packages today.

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