Smartphones and Social Media: The 21st Century Addiction

The recent fall of Facebook services, including Whats App and Instagram caused great distress in many people around the world by the unavailability of services and the impact this generated in the cultural dynamics of many population groups, while various experts around the world, set off alarms about the level of addiction that produce digital services.

What is the impact of people’s addiction to digital services?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B.
www.galevy.com

 

Last October 4, 2021, the world witnessed live and direct, how all Facebook services were affected simultaneously, harming millions of people around the world, a phenomenon that, while it could be defined as technological, in the field of social studies served as a great global experiment on the impact of social media and the use of smartphones on the human mind.

In an interview conducted by the British media BBC, the psychologist specialized in human behavior: Marc Masip, defined the fall of Facebook services as a great experiment in which millions of people were frustrated by the shutdown of these services for about six hours. [1]defined the fall of Facebook’s services as a great experiment in which millions of people were frustrated when these services were shut down for about six hours.

Marc Masip as part of his work develops therapies in detoxification clinics for technology addicts.

“There is not much difference between drug addiction and mobile phone addiction … … a rehabilitation that can be even more difficult than drug addiction, because everyone has already assumed that drugs are bad, while the new technologies we all use without knowing how much damage they can do …

…When we don’t have the technology, as happens when Whastapp or Facebook goes down, we all feel a malaise, an abstinence syndrome. The comparison with heroin seems good to me because we are not yet aware of all the damage it can do.

When heroin started to be consumed, people didn’t know how bad it was and in the end many people died. Let’s hope it’s not like that now, but there are people who die because they use cell phones even when they drive,” Masip explains in this interview with BBC Mundo. [2].

Much more than an addiction

Addiction is not the only drawback associated with the use of social media and digital platforms, as we discussed earlier depression is another serious problem arising from the use and abuse of these platforms:

For social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, the rates of depression, loneliness, self-harm and suicide among adolescents began to increase dramatically in the United States in 2012, especially in the so-called Generation Z, i.e. those born after 1996. [3].

Initially academic experts tried to identify external factors, such as the political climate or economic realities, but by that time the U.S. economy was improving steadily during those years, so they could not attribute it to economic problems stemming from the Great Recession of 2008. Nor could they find an explanation in any other event that they could blame, with the exception of a particular technological development. [4].

“We both became suspicious of the same thing: cell phones in general and social media in particular. Jean found that 2012 was the first year that a majority of Americans owned a smartphone; in 2015, two-thirds of teens also owned one. That was also the period when social media use went from optional to ubiquitous among teens. Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [5]

Research by social psychologists coincided in affirming that the marriage between mobile devices and social media, became a trigger of significant affectation in the brains of children, youth and adolescents, leading to addictive and polarizing behaviors.

“Jonathan found, while writing an essay with technologist Tobias Rose-Stockwell. [6]that the major social networking platforms changed at a profound level from 2009 to 2012. In 2009, Facebook added the “like” button, Twitter added the “retweet” button, and in the years that followed, users’ accounts became algorithmic based on “interaction,” which essentially refers to a post’s ability to elicit emotion.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [7]

The responsibility of large Internet content technology companies

A previous investigation, also previously published by The Wall Street Journal, titled “Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive”, reported that Facebook had evidence that its algorithms polarize and pit users against each other. [8]denounced that Facebook had evidence that its algorithms polarize and pit users against each other, but its executives ruled out solutions by considering that polarization significantly increases the use of social media.

The report, the result of an internal audit, concluded that the social network’s algorithms “exploit the human brain’s attraction to confrontation”. This research came in response to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and its researchers determined that the social network’s algorithms were achieving the opposite effect of their original purpose: “connecting the world”.

In this regard, the analysis of Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge suggests that Facebook’s strategy to increase the attention of users by manipulating the human mind could be the genesis of many of the mental health problems faced by young people in the United States, especially since Instagram belongs to the same conglomerate.

“Major social media platforms, created an outrage machine that made life online much nastier, faster, more polarized, and more likely to incite performative humiliation. Moreover, as Instagram became more popular over the next decade, it had particularly strong effects on girls and young women, as the network invited them to “compare and despair” while looking at the posts of friends and strangers whose faces, bodies, and lives had been edited over and over again until many were closer to perfection than reality.” Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [9]

A problem that should be treated as a public health issue

For the academic and expert in attention economics: Bruno Patiño, who is the author of the book “The civilization of the fish memory, a small treatise on the economics of attention [10]“The mixture of three factors are the major triggers in the attention and mental health problems of minors:

“The adoption of the economic model, the massification of the Smartphone and the commercialization of private data, were what triggered the problems arising from the consumption of digital platforms and content:

With the invention of the smartphone, you can stay connected all day long. Facebook can try to capture your attention 24 hours a day, something impossible to do with a computer or TV screen.

Patiño affirms that at that time:

“The big Internet corporations develop instruments that go from habit to addiction, that is to say that they go from trying to provoke a reaction to provoke an emotion, because emotion is the most efficient link for a message to have an economic profitability”.  Interview by Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo [11]

Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, for their part, consider that the impact even goes beyond a problem of depression and anxiety, and becomes a real public health problem that even affects relationships and social interactions in a significant way:

“As cell phones became commonplace, they transformed peer relationships, family relationships, and the texture of everyday life for everyone, even those without a phone or Instagram account. It’s harder to engage in casual conversation in the cafeteria or after class when everyone is looking at their phones. It’s harder to have a deep conversation when each party is randomly interrupted by buzzing and vibrating “notifications.” As Sherry Turkle wrote in her book Reclaiming Conversation [12]life with smartphones means that “we are always somewhere else”. Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times.” [13]

Experts’ concerns

For the psychologist Marc Masip [14]recently interviewed by the BBC about the collapse of Facebook services, it is necessary for parents to rationalize the use of technology and especially social media such as Facebook:

“We have to take care of the child from screens so that they don’t need them so much. For a child, having a smartphone before the age of 16 brings more disadvantages than advantages. Without training, without knowing how to use it correctly, the bad things about a mobile phone outweigh the good things about it.

But Masip is not the only one who points in this direction, several Neurologists, Psychiatrists, Sociologists and Psychologists around the world, have expressed their concern about the impact of the improper and indiscriminate use of algorithms by companies like Facebook and its impact on people’s mental health.

For Psychiatrist Marian Rojas, Facebook and Instagram are a Drug and Likes are Dopamine Sparks and therefore social media should be treated as such.

Social media and cocaine are regulated by the same hormone, dopamine, which gives you pleasure, but generates addictions. The “likes” are micro sparks of dopamine. The networks are constantly sending us news of what’s happening in the world, and that makes us, by our survival instinct, live always alert…

“The big problem is that we stop living in the real world to have a virtual life that brings us instant gratifications. Today we connect better with a screen than with a person. I see kids in my practice who I’m teaching how to flirt, because it takes time, effort and the possibility that they’ll say no. And today there’s no tolerance for frustration. And today there is no tolerance for frustration; we want everything here and now, and our brain has become accustomed to that. Psychiatrist Marian Rojas [15].

On the other hand, the social psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge, consider that although social media could give the perception that we are becoming more connected, in reality the phenomenon is comparable to the paradox of food and the consumption of empty calories, that is to say that there are not necessarily more functional relationships, but on the contrary, a deep void in the process of socialization of adolescents and young people.

“All young mammals play, especially those that live in groups, such as dogs, chimpanzees, and humans. All of these mammals need tens of thousands of social interactions to become socially competent adults. In 2012 it was possible to believe that teenagers would get those interactions through their smartphones, perhaps many more. But as data accumulates about their mental health worsening since 2012, it now appears that electronically mediated social interactions are like empty calories. Just imagine what teenagers’ health would be like today if we had removed 50 percent of the most nutritious foods from their diets in 2012 and replaced those calories with sugar. Jonathan Haidt and Jean M. Twenge in The New York Times [16]

In conclusion, the combination of social media, technological devices such as smartphones and the indiscriminate use of technology, become an explosive mixture that affects brains in the same way that hard drugs like heroin do, which is why several experts around the world such as Marc Masip, Marian Rojas, Jonathan Haidt, Bruno Patiño and Jean M. Twenge, set alarm bells ringing, recommending parents to pay special attention to the exposure of minors to the use of these devices and recommending adults to understand the risks and impacts that technology has on daily life and the use and abuse of digital services and platforms.

[1] Interview with Masip for BBC Mundo

[2] Interview by Masip for BBC Mundo

[3] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[4] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[5] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[6] Essay published by Jonathan Haidt

[7] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[8] The Wall Street Journal’s denunciation of Facebook’s intentional intent to polarize.

[9] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge

[10] Book: The civilization of fish memory: a little treatise on the market for attention. Alliance essay.  Bruno Patiño. Translated by Alicia Martorell, Alicia Martorell Linares. Alianza, 2020. ISBN 8491819681, 9788491819684. 180 pages.

[11] Interview of Author Bruno Patiño for BBC Mundo.

[12] Book: title Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age, Sherry Turkle, Penguin Publishing Group, 2016 ISBN 0143109790, 9780143109792 436 pages.

[13] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge.

[14] Interview by Masip for BBC Mundo.

[15] Publication by Psychiatrist Marian Rojas.

[16] Article from The New York Times: on the analyses of Social Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean M Twenge