“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” -Edward Tufte.
In a post-coronavirus world, it is safe to say that most in-person human interaction has been stripped from young children and teenagers alike. This has led to an overwhelming spike in the use of social media amongst these students, as it has become the sole source of social interaction in their lives.
This growth of usage on platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Tiktok and Twitter has exacerbated the problem of people developing an addiction toward these apps.
Furthermore, social media has transitioned from a tool used for people to connect with one another, into an addictive drug for its users.
At the root of this addiction is a chemical that you have most likely heard of before: dopamine. It is responsible for feelings of happiness, reward and motivation in the human body, effects on memory and attention and even triggers certain body movements. The human body experiences the release of dopamine into our bloodstream when we eat delicious food, engage in intimate activity, after we exercise and most importantly, when we have successful social interaction. This is where social media comes into play.
If you have ever noticed or took part in a group of friends or even a family eating dinner, you have likely witnessed at least one point where every person was staring at a screen. If you have, you are witnessing how technical developers have programmed devices to compete for our attention by using the release of dopamine in our bodies against us.
Former Vice-President of User Growth at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya has even said on record, “dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” But just what are some examples of these so-called “feedback loops” that Palihapitiya speaks of?
If you are familiar with the popular social networking app Snapchat, you have likely gotten a notification on your phone at one point that says “__ is typing…” When one sees this message appear at the top of their screen, their first response is likely something along the lines of, “what did they say?” or “what could they want?” All of the sudden, it becomes impossible to focus on whatever task is at hand.
Of course, some people could ask the question, “Well what is Snapchat supposed to do? Not tell me when I get a message?” This is a good point, but it disregards the fact that the app deliberately tells its users when someone is about to message you. It is not only telling you when you get a message, but also when you are about to. This is a prime example of exactly what Palihapitiya was talking about: “dopamine driven feedback loops.”
And it is not just Snapchat that does this. Just take iMessage for example. When someone is texting you, three floating dots will appear at the bottom of your screen. It is like the app is telling you, “Wait! Don’t go!” The apps are literally fighting for your attention, which is why it is so difficult for people to disconnect.
The inability for people to simply set their phones down and ignore them have created major societal issues. If you are a teacher, you most likely experience this the most with your students. You find yourself having to compete for the attention of the kids you teach. This is because the dopamine released in your body when someone likes your post just is not the same as when you listen to a lecture about the quadratic formula.
Though, it was not always like this. No, not before smartphones, but before technological developers began using the human psychology of our brains against us. For instance, when Justin Rosenstein invented the like button for Facebook after realizing it would skyrocket its user base because of the feeling of satisfaction people receive. According to a Vice News Interview with Rosenstein, he now swears against how addictive social media has become, going as far as limiting himself to internet access regularly.
Addictive self-gratifying social platforms were not what these early developers envisioned. It was meant to be a tool for which people could connect with one another and make the world a better place. Palihapitiya has even been quoted saying that he “feels tremendous guilt [for what it has become].”
If the people who originally developed these apps did not intend for this to be its purpose, then we should not treat them like it is. If we as students can regulate screen time and usage of social media, then we will have ironically succeeded in what was the main goal of people like Chamath Palihapitiya and Justin Rosenstein in the first place: to make the world a better place.