Social Media And The ‘Dilemma’ We Need To Confront

Social Media. A term that every household, no matter in which part of the world, is fully aware of. Humans evolved from the stone-age to the middle-age, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, and now is in the middle of a technical revolution. On the surface, the age of technology looks like our own personal utopia. Why? Just look at the features you have access to. From connecting with thousands of people around the world at just the tap of a finger to being capable of ordering every necessity you want, may it be food, clothes, stationery, utensils, or any other item you feel the need to acquire; technology, a very updated and vast amount of technology, makes all of this possible for us. And social media is at the core of making all of this possible through technology.

When this era began developing, the primary goal of each platform and gadget was to make the world more connected. To make people of different territories come together and communicate with each other no matter where they lived. Just think of Nokia’s official tagline, i.e. ‘Connecting People’. And all of this felt like magic when it started. Never had any generation found it so easy to communicate with people living even one city away, let alone seeing and talking live with loved ones living halfway across the World from us.

Slowly but gradually, the technology introduced to connect one person to another with ease evolved and updated to connect people with their favorite celebrities, politicians, scholars, and even brands. As this business model expanded, so did people’s interest and usage for social media platforms. And almost every platform you use has an algorithm that reads and understands your usability patterns to introduce you to more and more content that caters to your interests. This may seem like a good thing, but it has some very serious consequences that I’m going to discuss in this blog. So let’s dig into the age of Social Media and the underlying dilemma we need to confront.

The Attention Economy Or the Addiction Economy?

Psychologically, attention refers to our ability to focus on a specific topic at a time while ignoring all other stimuli available in the environment. In 1997, Michael H. Goldhaber wrote that the economy we’re a part of is backing away from materialism and going toward one based on human attention. And that’s quite an appropriate observation. Our attention is a valuable asset, and not just for us.

Vast companies, brands, corporations, and platforms are constantly competing for the sake of gaining our attention. Perhaps these companies are only working to provide us their services. That too for free. But are they for free? Just think of the expression, ‘pay attention’. The phrase implies its importance in terms of value and its limitations. When we pay attention to one stimulus, our budget for attention diminishes regarding other stimuli present in our environment at the same time. As human attention is a limited resource, multitasking might seem like a suitable solution on paper. There still comes a time when you’re paying attention to one task you’re doing or the other, not both at the same time.

The attention economy refers to the ways every other corporation is competing to gain people’s attention through making their services and products more and more aligned with people’s likes and dislikes. Just think about the time you’re watching a video on YouTube; while you’re paying attention to the content you watch, the platform has already studied your interests based on current interests and past preferences and comes up with a plethora of different suggestions. After a certain amount of time, you realize that the original video you came for ended hours ago, and you’re now in a different rabbit hole of content that you can’t get your eyes off of.

All of this might seem helpful to you. When you’re doing research and you find a bunch of other relatable content, it may seem like a good idea that platforms are catering to your interests and gaining your attention. But it’s not always that good. Social media technology is developed in a way that constantly demands our attention. This demand gets so serious that many people report that they feel incapable of looking away from their screens. This helplessness leads to hooking people to their devices and creates a situation close to the boundaries of addiction.

Often, taking time off of screens can end people up with withdrawal-like symptoms. Just take a moment and think about your own behavior. When we’re paying attention to a task, any task, not too much time passes before we pick up our phones and start scrolling on our social media feed. Even if there isn’t anything relevant or worthy of interest, we just can’t seem to stop scrolling! And this is something we need to look into before it wracks our brain further than it already has.

Social Media and the Concept of Conditioning

A very easy method for social media to gain our attention is through the convenient technology of push notifications. I mean, have you ever noticed how quickly, and involuntarily, our hand reaches out to grab our phone as soon as we hear a notification ping? This is what psychologists describe as classical conditioning. The phenomenon was introduced after Pavlov experimented on a dog (Yes! THAT experiment) and conditioned the dog to salivate at the mere sound of a bell. The notification ping on our phone is the bell sound that haunted those poor dogs Pavlov experimented on.

Whether we find a notification to our satisfaction though is where operant conditioning comes in. The phenomenon states that getting reinforcements because of a behavior increases the likelihood of that behavior, i.e. getting a text from our friend or a ‘like’ on our latest post. Whereas punishments as a result decrease the likelihood of that behavior, i.e. receiving a notification we don’t want to see decreases my chances of unlocking my phone and opening that app.

Both phenomena seem harmless. But is that really the case? Imagine your phone ringing with notifications all day long (which they do) and you reaching out to check those notifications every single time you hear that bell (which… we do). Notifications are helpful most times, but they serve as an enormous distraction even if we’re focused on the work we’re doing at any moment. The hyper-responsive world of today may have made Ivan Pavlov proud, but it’s not proving to be a positive impact in your life.

A lot of studies show that vast amounts of notifications don’t just disrupt our productivity, they also make us worried, anxious, angry, or nervous. Yes, notifications have a very important purpose in our lives. But does every app on our phone satisfy this purpose? Anything exceeding its limits to serving us becomes a threat to our well-being, and that’s definitely true for our mobile notifications.

The Age of Intolerance

When you work in a digital marketing agency, you learn the process behind how a brand runs ads on every digital platform. Without getting into complex details, I’m just going to talk about the simple process of choosing a target audience for any brand. You just have to choose people according to their location, gender, age, education, income, i.e. anything, and everything relevant to your brand. E.g. if you run a dessert shop, you won’t want diabetic people in your audience, unless you have sugar free goods in the menu, then you can specifically target diabetics and run your ads on their feed.

The very process of choosing a target audience shows how every platform has the aim to provide you with content you will like. They follow your activities, likes, dislikes, opinions, every single thing you save or unsafe, and then they show you exactly the content you’d be interested in, and that too at that time. If you liked a tv show two years ago but never engaged with its content after that, you won’t be seeing too many posts about them either, even if they’re trending.

So why are we so intolerant, you ask? This technology which feeds us only with content we will like is a huge reason. We’re human, and our brain’s pleasure points elevate with the positive reinforcements we receive. This reinforcement comes from getting validated and being appreciated. What is social media doing by feeding us content we like to see? It’s validating our likes and dislikes. It’s constantly telling us that yes, we are right. And everything else is wrong, or at least irrelevant.

I’m not saying opinions are wrong. I’m not saying you’re wrong for getting validated. But just think about this, if you spend 20% of your day with someone who constantly validates you and appreciates you and encourages you to do more of what you’re doing now, that 20% of your entire day would feel better than the rest of the 80% where you’re not appreciated or validated enough. This makes social media so addictive. It’s all connected. The race to gain our attention, the attempts to distract us from our work, and then to validate our opinions consistently by showing us content we’re looking for.

Do you know what happens when we’re fed with only information that we agree with? Imagine not having any aim ideas at all but being taught since childhood that what you do is right and what you say is right and everyone and everything else is irrelevant. When that happens, we become intolerant of other opinions. But that intolerance doesn’t just remain in our heads, it gets out to threaten everyone else. By being validated on such a tremendous level, we lose sight of objectivity and go on a more subjective worldview.

Political Turmoil & Covid-19 – A Pandemic in the Social Age

Combine the above-described intolerance with religious/political obsessions and you become part of an extremism spectrum that you no longer have control over. Just look at how followers of a certain politician are always in conflict with the rival followers. People have literally broken their interpersonal relationships on this agenda. And that’s just a tiny problem. In the old days, cold wars occurred by ignoring each other’s existence. Now, they occur through social media disputes. And this dispute in-turn poses the threat to become a downright civil war with no one even realizing it.

The biggest examples you will find of the role of social media in political turmoil would be the Trump elections and the alteration of voters’ views through the content they consumed through these very platforms, not only this, but several countries like North Korea and Iran have blocked huge internet platforms because of civil wars erupting in the nations. Social media was introduced to connect people and is now changing into a very dangerous political tool no one really knows how to control anymore. But not just politics. The platforms are causing chaos in almost every aspect of life, the biggest this year being the controversies on Covid-19.

One would think the existence of a global pandemic is chaotic enough in this advanced world, but then came those who started claiming the deadly virus that has taken various lives, is fake propaganda spread by corporations to gain control of the economy. And almost half of the population in the world believes this conspiracy theory, including none other than a few doctors, a set from the population responsible for dealing with Covid-19.

The Elephant in the Room: Mental Health

The things I’ve spoken about above aren’t just an imagination, they’re happening in real-time in the world. But what does all of that combine to affect? Our brains. We’re now more dependent than ever on social media for not just news and finding relevant brands and content to connect with, but also for validation. We post something and we wait for people to like it, and then we keep a check on how many people have liked it to deduce if the post was worthy or not. We follow different celebrities and influencers and if we don’t agree with their opinions, the ever-looming Cancel Culture that takes the spotlight.

Studies show that social media is literally changing the structure of our brains.

  • Our brain’s reward centers are activated by likes on our posts.
  • Our ability to focus on different apps at a time has a direct negative impact on our attention span.
  • Spending too much time on those platforms activates a herd mentality, meaning you conform with what’s trending rather than forming your own opinion on any topic.
  • Our nervous systems can suffer from the phantom vibration syndrome, a disorder in which we believe we heard our phone’s notifications even if there weren’t any.

These affect our mental health, the levels of confidence we have, and our self-esteem. Drug addiction is no longer the only form of addiction that’s toxic to our physical and mental health. Our addictions to our social media and internet use are what we need to withdraw from now.

What We Can Do to Change This Dilemma

We have spoken about the dilemma that we need to confront when it comes to social media. But how can we change it to our advantage? Accountability goes a long way to make us realize our responsibility as individuals. We’re the ones who gave rise to the need for technology to develop this extensively, and we’re the ones who made this development happen. So we need to realize the power we have and use it to put limitations on this modern technology.

  • Almost all our phones have the feature of limiting or blocking push notifications. Do you no longer want to be conditioned? Change your phone settings to block all the push notifications that act as a distraction.
  • Use a do not disturb feature on your phone to stop notifications from distracting you for a particular amount of time when you’re busy or asleep.
  • Limiting your screen time is the best way to keep a good check on your social media usage.
  • Follow even the content you don’t agree with but can have relevance in society. This can provide you with the objectivity you need in your thinking and information processing.
  • Communicate with people who hold opinions different from yours. This can help us understand their perspectives and the reasons behind those perspectives, resulting in making us more empathetic to their approach.
  • Try to delete the apps you don’t use or need in your daily activities. This is the easiest way to rid yourself of some unnecessary content you might invest time and energy in.
  • Invest your social time to learn new things rather than indulging in useless activities. There are thousands of apps available to teach you, whether Duolingo or Coursera. All these apps are designed to teach you different languages, certifications, and courses, etc, to make your knowledge more advanced for you to succeed.

It’s obvious that the huge companies need to take a more accountable and responsible approach to provide us with the technology they’re designing that doesn’t exploit us in more ways than it already has, but for that to happen, we as individuals need to make them change their stance. These platforms weren’t designed to have this huge negative impact on our lives. They were made to make the world an easier, more approachable place to be a part of. It’s amazing how easily we can speak with people around the world now. Just look at the availability of a bunch of online applications that kept everyone connected during the pandemic when everyone was locked in their house.

No one in history could imagine the economy to continue its workings after every office, every school, every organization was forced shut. Today’s technology and social media made that possible. Who has ever imagined that you can feel hungry in the middle of the night but with just one tap of a finger, you can get food delivered at your doorstep even if it’s 2 am? Today, we don’t have to imagine it. From large to small businesses, every entrepreneur has now the platform to market their product and become successful in the digital age. These are the positives of social media, and these make it possible for today’s world to thrive. But where this positive impact crosses a boundary and makes these platforms to become destructive is something we have to keep a check on. What we need is for these platforms to focus more on serving the population rather than sucking our attention and mental health for the sake of their revenues.

Maha Abdul Rehman

A content writer and a psychology major, I procrastinate for 6 months or write consecutively. And I occasionally watch (see: obsess about) Football.

Explore further 👇

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x