With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Are Social Media Anti-Social?

This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of being a panel member for a debate at the UN on social media. It launched the debate series “Point/Counter-point” organized by the United Nations Academic Impact team.  You can see the debate here.

We debated on the theme “social media are anti-social.” I was assigned to the team arguing in support of this point. I was unhappy with being asked to take this side – because I don’t agree with it! – but I was willing to do so with the understanding that I would argue that the very question of whether social media are anti-social is a faulty one. That is, like most technology, social media are neither good nor bad in and of themselves because the impact of social media depends on how they are used. Moreover, from a scientific standpoint, we know almost nothing about whether social media are actually making us more “anti-social” – less socially connected and less socially skilled.

After clearly stating this, however, my strategy was to highlight ways in which social media COULD be antisocial – emphasizing that the research to test these possibilities remains to be done. Perhaps that was one reason why we (my team mate BJ Mendelson and I) lost so spectacularly. At the same time, it was clear that the audience (whose votes determined the winning side) had already made up their minds before the debate even began. This was unsurprising because social media, as this era’s technological bugaboo, are absurdly polarizing. It’s either the scapegoat for all that is wrong, or the best hope for a utopian future.  And of course, the truth is always somewhere in between.

Coincidentally, this very debate had just been played out in relation to an inflammatory Newsweek article last week called “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” A flurry of responses emerged, including an online Time Healthland article calling into serious question the Newsweek article’s review of evidence that the internet “makes” people crazy. Essentially, the Newsweek article is accused of being sensationalistic rather than doing what responsible journalism is supposed to do: (a) impartially seeking out and weighing the evidence that exists with a careful eye to the quality and direct implications of the science being cited, and (b) avoiding quoting scientific findings out of context.

I believe, however, that there is so much polarized debate because the research we need to weigh in on these issues has not yet been conducted. And that was my main point in the debate. We know almost nothing about the cause and effect relationship between social media or the internet and mental health: Are these technologies making us crazy, depressed, anxious, etc,…, or are people who are already troubled in offline life troubled no matter what the context? How do we measure anti-social, or crazy, or any other outcome that reflects the well-being of an individual? The plethora of unanswered questions makes for polarizing journalism.

One interesting possibility that the Newsweek article brought up and which I considered in the debate was the idea that social media may influence us in ways that are more powerful than other types of technology because they tap into something that is fundamentally rewarding to humans (and most mammals!): the need to be socially connected with others.

I made the point in the debate that, “Science is finding that social media are so rewarding, so motivating, that they essentially “highjack” our brain’s reward centers – the same brain areas that underlie drug addiction-  so that you see what all of us can attest to: people have difficulty disengaging from social media. They feel the need to constantly check their device for the next text, tweet, status update, or email. They feel obsessed. The documented existence of Facebook addiction attests to this. How many of us walk down the street, or eat dinner in a restaurant with our devices clutched in our hand or lying on the table right next to us like a security blanket. I know I do more often than I’d like.”

Indeed, we don’t walk down the street reading a book or watching TV. These technologies can be consuming, but the nature of social media – portable, brief, deeply social – creates a completely different set of temptations and rewards. Textbook theories of behavioral learning and reinforcement tell us that the way rewards are integrated into social media is a recipe for keeping us roped in. For example, if your goal is to,  say, make a rat in a cage press a bar as frequently as possible you should do the following: every once in a while, in a completely unpredictable way, give a reward when the bar is pushed. In contrast, if you give rewards every time they push the bar, they’ll become sated and push less. If you reward in a predictable way, they’ll press the bar just enough to get the reward and no more – because they know how many times they need to press the bar before the reward comes.

Now think about how we use our devices. We check our devices frequently (analogous to pressing the bar) because we’re never sure when an important message, really good piece of news or fascinating factoid will pop up (analogous to the unpredictable reward). So, we find ourselves with device in hand “pressing the bar” over and over again, all day long. The whole economy of social media (i.e., the way the creators of these platforms make their money) is hugely dependent on this very fact.

Now I have to stop and give a MAJOR caveat: This idea may be compelling, sounds like it could be right, but, from my reading of the literature, there is very little direct evidence that this is the case. All we know is that neurologically, aspects of social media and internet use are rewarding, calming, and pleasurable. It’s a far cry from “highjacking our brain,” a phrase I used in the debate for the sake of argument and hyperbole. At the same time, a growing number of people think this is a viable hypothesis, and one that we must put to the test.

By the end of the debate, I think we were all in agreement that when forced to pick a side, we could argue it. But really, we all felt the same thing: Whether social media are anti-social simply depends. It depends on who is using it, how they are using it, and why they are using it. And we just don’t have the scientific knowledge yet to understand these who’s, how’s, and whys.

I concluded my opening statement in the debate by saying, “Until we as a society spend the time, energy and resources to scientifically test how we are changed [by social media], we should proceed with caution and with the possibility in mind that social media could make us more anti-social.”

But BJ Mendelson may have summed it up best when he made a good old-fashioned fan boy reference: with great power comes great responsibility. We need to take the responsibility to look at, question, and try to understand the role of social media in our lives and in society.

Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

There is a lot of talk about how technology might be making us stupid. The examples are legion, and possibilities endless: we can’t spell anymore; we can’t remember anything anymore because we have a big, giant, virtual brain called the internet; we have flea-like attention spans; etc, etc, etc,..

To over-generalize like this is certainly giving technology a bum rap. And of course, many argue the opposite – that using different technologies improves key abilities  like working memory and eye-hand coordination. I think that there is always the risk of losing skills (aka becoming more stupid) if use shortcuts all the time and look at things superficially rather than using our brains to understand something at a deeper level. But there are many opportunities to gain new abilities via technology.

One ability that I think might be enhanced by the use of internet-based platforms, like social media, web browsers, and online shopping, is pattern recognition. From the point of view of psychology, pattern recognition refers to perceiving that a set of separate items make up a greater whole – such as faces, objects, words, melodies, etc. This process often happens automatically and spontaneously, and seems to be an innate ability of most animals. Certainly, the tendency to see patterns is fundamentally human – even patterns that don’t exist, such as the Man in the Moon.

How would using the internet help strengthen our pattern recognition abilities? To use the internet, we have to become skilled at skimming through large quantities of information rapidly, instantly judging whether we’ve found the information, website, or person that we’re looking for. Also, we have to rapidly shift from site to site. To process all that information slowly and serially would keep us busy all day. We have to put it together, see the patterns, and glean the information that we need. Children are frighteningly good at this. They have no difficulty sorting through complex arrays of information and graphics.  It feels like they read the patterns of the computer interfaces like native speakers. It’s not for nothing that we call children growing up today digital natives.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, Pattern Recognition, by the great technovisionary William Gibson, plays with the idea of what pattern recognition means to us today. Set in the present (rather than some future dystopia, which is more usual for him), the protagonist, Cayce (pronounced case not cas-ee) has an extreme psychological sensitivity to corporate logos, and has what amounts to an allergic reaction to successful advertising. So, companies hire her to judge the effectiveness of their proposed corporate logos and advertising strategies. Her ability is to effortlessly identify the je ne sais quoi – that special pattern – that makes a logo powerful and effective. I think that Gibson is thinking about our era as one in which highly skilled pattern recognition defines what we do and who we are becoming.

So, the question arises: Does that mean I want to sit my 3-year-old in front of a device for hours a day to help him build these abilities? No. But perhaps focusing on the skills he can build will help me think through how to structure his use of things like the iPad more effectively – such as what apps to choose for him, how to dovetail what he’s learning on the device with what he’s doing in the world (e.g., building blocks all the time, learning about letters and numbers), and how to help him see the patterns in what he’s doing.

Of course it is way too simplistic to demonize any technology by saying it will make us stupid. It’s all about the costs and benefits of how we use the technology. That’s why the research community needs to step up to the plate and try to understand how all these aspects of our children’s technological lives are changing them (or not) – what technology offers us, and what we in turn bring to the table in that equation.  We know shockingly little. As parents, we can either cut our children off from technology all together, or try to use our best judgment and make our children’s interactions with technology useful and powerful.  As adults, we can do the same – clearly, we need to think carefully about how we want to integrate these devices into our lives.

Now, sit down and look through your twitter feed or Facebook newsfeed, and see all the information you have to sort through. Tons of it! Reams – just in a given day…. And feel how your pattern recognition abilities are growing!


 

You Might As Well Face It: You’re Addicted to Facebook?

Many of us know the feeling of being addicted to our devices. Walking down the streets of Manhattan, I’ve done head counts of the percent of passers-by that are either clutching (like a security blanket) or using their handheld devices –the number ranges between 20% and 75%. And I usually have to count myself!

But recently, researchers have come out with a Facebook Addiction Scale, suggesting that it might not only be an addiction to our devices, but an addiction to what social media do for us and make us feel – an addiction to being connected.

A simple and elegant definition of addiction is The continued use of a mood altering substance or behavior despite adverse consequences.” Does this apply to Facebook use? Here are some of the things to look out for:

  1. You’re preoccupied with Facebook when you’re not online – This has to do with spending “a lot” of time thinking about Facebook or making plans to use Facebook. I’m not sure what counts as a lot – and I don’t think the measure specifies – but this is about the feeling that you are putting excessive mental energy  into Facebook.
  2. You need more Facebook time to get the same pleasure from it – This is called tolerance in the addiction literature. It includes getting “sucked in to” and spending more time on Facebook than intended: like when you’ve logged on to Facebook and then all of a sudden two hours have gone by; or when you feel the compulsion to check Facebook every two minutes.  And key to this is that you often have the urge to use Facebook, and find that you have to use Facebook more and more to get the same pleasure from it. Has anyone ever felt a Facebook high? ……
  3. You use Facebook to feel better or forget about your problems – Like others might drink a glass of wine, pop a pill, etc.,… Personally, I don’t use Facebook in this way, but I imagine it’s like my feeling when I log on to Amazon. I’m not much of a shopper, but being able to get exactly what you want immediately – whether it’s socks or a power wheel for your kid (yes, a big green, awesome power wheel car; all terrain!) – is extremely soothing to me. A study showed that when people use Facebook, physiological signs of stress are reduced. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it might even be good – but it could be part and parcel of the addictive process.
  4. You have tried to reduce your Facebook use without success – Here, the questionnaire is sussing out whether you’ve identified it as a problem, and have tried to cut down on your use of Facebook, but have fallen off the wagon. This is the “uh-oh!” moment.
  5. You experience withdrawal feelings when you don’t use Facebook – This is one that might make more sense for younger people, because one of the key questionnaire items for this issue is “Become restless or troubled if you have been prohibited from using Facebook?” I presume they mean prohibited by parents, but perhaps loved ones could be doing the same (see #6 below). These feelings of dis-ease are a sign that dependence is present.
  6. You find that your use of Facebook has had a negative impact on your life – This final dimension is important for putting the label of addiction on Facebook use – it’s getting in the way of having a healthy life. This includes using Facebook so much that your job/studies/or relationships are suffering. It also includes Facebook taking the place of other important things, such as hobbies, leisure activities, and exercise. Have you ever ignored your partner, family members, or friends because of Facebook?

I bet many of us have shown at least one of these warning signs at some point. Should we be worried? Probably not, unless Facebook use is getting in the way of being a functional person. On the other hand, having even one warning sign should perhaps give us pause.

Some preliminary studies suggest that Facebook addiction occurs more frequently in people who have other addictive problems (no surprise there), as well as among the younger and older. People who worry or are socially anxious also may be at more risk, perhaps because they find Facebook to be an easier way to connect with others. Procrastinators beware – Facebook addiction may also be just another way to avoid work.

So, consider this a public service message. If you feel these warning signs apply to you, it might be time to give it a rest. Or just switch to Pinterest.