Lifestyle

Why Social Media Might Just Be Antisocial

By DAVID GREENFIELD

The digital dance social media choreographs is problematic.

The excessive use of social media is anything but social or socially affirming. Social media is counter-social. The types of interactions we see within social media are more about social media companies keeping “eyes on site” as opposed to nutritive social connection and intimacy. In fact, heavy social media use seems to reduce social empathy.

Social media is also time-consuming and can be addictive. The addiction to social media is, in part, facilitated via social validation looping wherein one posts to receive likes and comments, increasing dopamine in the reward centers of the brain, thus facilitating continuous posting and checking. Likes and comments are often doled out by the social media platforms in an intermittent and variable pattern, which the brain reacts to like a slot machine. This variable reinforcement pattern is the most resistant to extinction and, therefore, highly addictive.

The digital dance that social media choreographs is even more problematic because people post two-dimensional views of their lives, only emphasizing positive and socially desirable aspects of themselves, thus perpetuating social comparison to an unrealistic level. Social media comparison becomes a thief of accurate appraisal of ourselves and others.

There is considerable neurobiological evidence to suggest that the internet and screen content are used addictively by increasing numbers of us and leave many with feelings of social disconnection, alienation, tech-stress, anxiety and dysphoria. Due to neurodevelopmental issues, sensitized reward pathways and immature prefrontal cortexes, the most susceptible groups are children, adolescents and young adults. This combined neurological vulnerability seen in children and adolescents becomes a perfect storm for addictive use.

Our screens allow us to view desirable and stimulating content while collecting likes and comments, creating false social intimacy while consuming a plethora of targeted ads. Social media content is engineered to be presented in ways that enhance users’ ease of access and produce threshold reduction to act, hence increasing its addictive appeal.

Social media, in essence, may be viewed as a form of broadcast intoxication wherein recording and transmitting our lives become a life essential.

A dominant complaint that most social media users have is that they feel compelled to post everything they do and experience an uncanny feeling that if they don’t post it, what they did has less inherent value. This cycle can become quite tedious and less than life-affirming. We have become relegated to observer status in our own lives and serve as digital slaves to our devices. Instead of participating in real-time living, we are witnessing our lives (and others’) by recording and broadcasting everything but always remaining one step removed from actual experience in the moment.

For companies that sell devices, service or access, this all results in more viewing along with valuable metric data, advertising platforms and targeted products to sell. Selling is not the problem — it’s the insidious and stealth way it’s done that contributes to such a deleterious impact.

There is a long history of corporate consumer denial in this country. Companies that produce or distribute addictive substances or behaviors have historically avoided responsibility for the negative impact and health effects on consumers from their products and services. Historically, we have seen this with alcohol, gambling, tobacco, food products — and now with video games, social media, internet and smartphone technology. Only after public pressure, government regulation, medical research and significant public education do companies seem to start to distribute appropriate warnings, produce educational materials, and contribute funding to research and treatment.

History is repeating itself with the internet and social media. There is a denial that there is a problem along with a denial of any responsibility for that problem. Ideally, tech companies would inform, educate and provide resources to help people manage their technology use in a more balanced, healthy and sustainable manner. This is just beginning to happen with the screen-monitoring apps on Apple, Google and Facebook products. This can be further accomplished with mandatory screen warnings, readily accessible information on the addictive nature of these technologies, healthy use suggestions, treatment and educational resources, simpler and more effective parental and self-controls to limit use, and perhaps, most importantly, automated systems (which are already technically possible) to disable the data stream when users are in the driver’s seat.

These solutions must be simple, seamless and fool-proof. It seems to me that the government has the same responsibility to protect the public now as it did with tobacco, alcohol and gambling — that is to require companies who profit from our use (and addiction) of digital devices to take on a socially proactive and responsible role in helping everyone manage technology so it doesn’t manage us.


David Greenfield is the founder and medical director of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and is an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine.

Side Note

Issues and Innovations Tech Event

Digital Technology and the Future of Behavioral Health

Amelia Island, Florida | July 14–17, 2019

C4 Events, in collaboration with the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction and GLOO, are coordinating a special technology and addiction event: Issues and Innovations: Digital Technology and the Future of Behavioral Health. Held in conjunction with the seventh annual CORE Conference, this series will focus on developing issues and treatment in the emerging field of technology addiction as well as how technology, in its many forms, will bring new tools and solutions to the consumers and providers of recovery services.

Workshops and lectures will focus on issues of:

  • Diagnosis and treatment, epidemiology, etiology, neurobiology, psychopharmacology, ethics and social issues
  • Future of technology-enabled behavioral health care systems through advancing care through improved engagement
  • Advances in HIT, devices, sensors and wearables
  • Using technology to help deliver care, make care more accessible, extend the continuum and improve patient engagement
  • Enabling innovation and improvement in behavioral health, especially around the value of data and analytics, integration, interoperability and clinical decision support
  • Technology as medicine — the future of digital therapeutics
  • eHealth and mHealth, digital therapeutics and telehealth and web-based counseling
  • The role of technology and data in the evolving business models in behavioral health care
  • A more networked system of care — technology and integration for behavioral health

For more information, including registration, sponsors, participating organizations and the agenda, visit https://core-conference.com/techaddiction.

The mission of C4 Recovery Foundation is to deliver the best knowledge and education resources to treatment providers, policymakers, health care systems and other stakeholders so they can align, improve and integrate policy and practice to best serve the needs of patients, families and communities as they confront the difficulties of recovery from substance use disorder and behavioral health issues. C4 seeks to continuously provide financial, clinical and social resources to increasingly complex societal problems.

CORE highlights the critical importance of providing individualized treatment and presents new options for productively integrating useful clinical tools into a larger recovery-oriented treatment culture while maintaining passion for delivering advanced behavioral, addiction and therapeutic services. It is an opportunity for addiction professionals to advance the principles of client-centered treatment with a strong clinical foundation as well as to be a forum to increase the collective understanding of the full continuum of recovery processes, including 12-step recovery. The goal is to improve outcomes by better integrating personalized evidence-based treatment services that allow individuals, families and professionals to choose the most appropriate treatment.

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