At this point, most of us have read about all of the research and effort that has gone into making apps like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. addictive. The concept of variable reward structures was proven decades ago by experiments on rats to be one of the most effective ways to drive repeat behavior. In contemporary times, humans are the subjects of the experiment and the instruments are mobile phones.
Let’s face it, we’re all viewed as rats pushing feeder bars now.
We are prone to grab our phones at any time to give us a little boost in the form of likes or retweets of our posts. Given our understanding of the habit forming nature of social media apps, I guess it’s no surprise that one of the newer articles to signal the death of social media starts out with a comparison to cocaine and heroin. Other articles that have been written recently about social media underscore the addictiveness. They have titles like Your Addiction to Social Media is No Accident, Why We Can’t Look Away From Our Screens and Want More Time? Get Rid of the Easiest Way to Spend It.
When I noticed one religiously Twitter-loving V.C. had become dormant on the platform, I e-mailed him to ask if he was O.K. His response: “Having a hard time imagining why I would come back [to Twitter]. Feels like an addictive, inflammatory disease that I have kicked, much to my immune system’s pleasure.”
Not only are we frequently told of how easy it is to get hooked on social media, but we’re also told about how destructive a social media habit can be. Destructive to our relationships in real life. Detrimental to our ability to keep our minds open, as we’re bombarded with easy rewards for our confirmation bias. Harmful to our self-esteem, as we pour through posts from people that seem to be living better lives than our own. Eroding our sense of empathy, as we come to view others as pictures on a screen, rather than as whole people, made in the image of God.
I recently found an entry in my journal, from five years ago, in which I contemplated joining Facebook. That never actually happened. Over the past year or so, I’ve thought about giving up other social media on a number of occasions. People I follow on various platforms (mostly Twitter) have taken breaks from time to time, tired of the toxicity of the discourse or just the time drain. Most of them have come back. They miss hot takes on current events, sharp and funny quips, and friends that can’t be found elsewhere.
Quite often, using social media is presented as a binary choice. Either you do it, or you don’t. While used in excess, digital social platforms most definitely can present all of the problems described above, it is possible to strike a healthy balance. There is a third way that promotes connections between people where they live part of their lives (online) and does so in a healthy way. While I still wouldn’t recommend Facebook, mostly because of all of the data they collect about you and your contacts and the way they turn your life into their product, other social networks can be a more casual investment.
When I was thinking about my ongoing relationship with social media, I found this podcast from Paul Martin and Tim Challies to be very helpful. Challies does a good job putting some of the alarming statistics in perspective. He outlines some of the types of interactions that should go on through social media (keeping touch with those that are distant) and some (such as conflict) that definitely should not take place in that forum. Challies advocates staying away from people who are obviously not people of character online and reminds that you don’t need to engage with those who disagree with you.
There are ways you can balance your social media usage so that it ends up being a net positive. If you find yourself constantly checking social media, you can be mindful of that. You can learn how to break the twitch. A simple way to start might be to avoid making checking social media first thing in the morning or late at night. Recognize that what other people post online is a version of themselves and don’t get trapped into believing that others are living their best life and you are not. Those van life posts on Instagram are carefully staged to represent an idyllic moment. Don’t stoke or feed into conflict online. If you have people attacking you for things you've said, consider making your profile private.
Twitter, Instagram and other social networks can bring us closer together. They can help us keep up with family and make good friends in distant places. In moderation, they can help us keep up with the news. They can introduce us to the beautiful creations of others. We just need to be careful of the ways in which social media can be abused and end up being a negative influence. My hope is that we can all learn to use social media without it owning us.
Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash