May 14, 2020

GUEST ROOM | The Social Media Rabbit Hole

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This pandemic has forced those of us who are fortunate enough to have somewhere to live into isolation. That is, physical isolation, but not social isolation, which is ironic because of the use of the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” All our social media platforms — Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram — are telling us to stay home, and though this is for our own safety, it is clear it is for their safety as well: their safety as profit-hungry organizations which make billions of dollars off of the insecurities of humans. It would be unfair to bash these companies without appreciating the connectivity they bring us in times of isolation; however, I will not overlook the negative aspects of being constantly connected.

The average millennial spends roughly three hours a day on social media and has an average of nine different accounts1. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have garnered billions of the world’s population since the turn of the century and more recently, we have seen the rise of video creation social media apps such as Tik Tok which over the course of two years, after its launch in 2016, attracted about 20 million new users per month. As social media platforms rise in prevalence, it is important to note that people who spend more time on social media are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. A study done by the University of Pittsburgh showed that of people aged 19-32, those who used seven or more platforms have more than triple the risk of displaying depression or anxiety symptoms compared to those who use between zero and two.

When you open up a social media app you find yourself in the newsfeed or the timeline, the part of social media the algorithm chooses to show us. We begin to make toxic comparisons between ourselves and people presumed to be living their ‘best life.’ These comparisons are based on embellished, carefully curated posts aimed to show off the highlights of one’s life which sometimes portray false images of happiness and success. We begin to neglect what is real and tangible in our lives and instead focus upon how to obtain validation that our life is also worth something to other people on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and, in the case of our immigrant parents and family outside the U.S., WhatsApp.

In 2015 the University of Cambridge in collaboration with Stanford University proved how accurately algorithms can identify what psychologists call the ‘Big Five’ dimensions of personality just by looking at Facebook likes. By analyzing 10 likes, the algorithm knew a person’s preferences as well as a co-worker; with 70 likes, it knew them as well as a friend; with 150 it knew them as well as a parent or sibling; and with 300 likes, it was more successful than a spouse. This information only proves exactly how lucrative it is for social media companies to collect the data we give them free and total access to. With browsing data from companies like Facebook and Google, corporations are able to advertise their products to their target market with pinpoint accuracy. And since likes are only a tiny facet of the activities we perform on social media I can’t help but wonder what they could do with our comments, our searches, the seemingly harmless thoughts we tweet out every day and the posts we publish on our “private” accounts.

Those who are already familiar with social media addiction are probably wondering why I have not yet mentioned the major scientific reason for which we struggle with moderating our usage: Dopamine, the chemical released from the brain as a reward for positive stimulation. It is released when we take recreational drugs, when we gamble and more recently, when we get likes, comments and messages. According to the Royal Society of Public Health in the U.K., Instagram is the most toxic of all platforms in this respect. From personal experience, this would have been my first guess as it is the only platform solely influenced by visuals which show us the rosy, oft-misleading surface of everything.

This is why the Insta model who girls think they have to look like and the successful entertainers that men think they have to be like are often battling depression and many other personal problems. Many social media famous people are unfulfilled in their lives because of the pressure that is put on them to maintain the image they have crafted on their platforms and, in the case of child stars, the image that is crafted for them. I have watched numerous videos of Instagram influencers5 and YouTubers warning of the dangers of social media. They complain of the isolation and depression they feel because they are drained from the pressures of living to please others. And the cycle of creating, posting, garnering attention and doing it over and over again inspires others to live their own social media lie; the bigger your accounts get, the harder the work is to maintain, because now you have more people to please. And when this becomes the source of your little dopamine release of happiness, you become a slave to it.

This information may seem dismal, but there is a solution to every problem.

Firstly, if any of the negative effects spoken of here apply to you, accept that you may have a problem. Take time off, meditate/pray, ingest healthy greens and express gratitude daily for what you do have in your life.

And for those who wish to take it a step further, you can make an account on freedom.to (aptly named) which blocks you from using social media during times you choose. You might also find it helpful to download Ad Blocker on your desktop and block the recommendations lined up beside YouTube videos, so you don’t end up procrastinating and binging on pointless videos.

Too much of anything is not good — social media is no different. We claim that we need the messaging features of these apps to communicate with each other, but we should be careful not to make excuses for ourselves when the real reason might be that we cannot moderate our own usage.

Humans like to feel like we are in control of our lives at all times, but the more time we spend on these apps the less true that is.

William Opoku Nnuro Jr. is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.