Articles such as these have been floating around on my social media dashboards for the past few days, and then finally my own father emailed me a clip from Morning Joe (très très gros soupir) interviewing two men from the Center for Humane Technology and I just... I honestly have quite a few thoughts about the use of the word “addiction” in this situation, and I was initially only going to write a couple of sentences on the subject and return a brief email to my father, but here we are with a 970 word text...
One thing to get out of the way, with the huge, immense caveat that I am not a doctor nor an expert on addiction, though I have had loved ones and family who struggled with it: Addictions are a serious medical illness. One of the characteristic facts of an addiction, physical or mental, is that it rewires the brain’s and makes it more difficult to function without certain behaviours (such as gambling) or substances. Well, it’s quite a bit more complicated than that, this is a useful enough abstraction to keep in mind when reading the following.
So, with regards to concern about a social media "addiction", is this conversation mostly a moral panic, or about a serious concern about social media’s ubiquity and omnipresence?
The “moral panic” characteristics of this conversation have existed in some form since the early 2000s. Fear of increased promiscuity in children, fear of parents not being able to control and monitor the conversations of children (an example from my childhood: a young queer kid looking up queer resources and evidence that queerness existed, often without knowing what I was looking for), “stranger danger”. (I put “stranger danger” in quotation marks because all research points that a majority of abuse, sexual and physical, is from family members or other close adults who have access to children and teenagagers.)
Leaving aside the moral panic about social media, "addiction rhetoric" in the United States and in Canada is seen as an individual, personal — and usually moral — failure. The language surrounding addiction is quite harsh and recovery, healing and support is often focused on whether people are “strong enough” to “overcome their own failures” — this language distracts from epidemic and systematic causes of addiction at a societal level that also needs serious addressing. Since the Puritans in England began articulating a vocabulary around addiction and alcohol consumption, addiction has always been considered an individual failure, rather than a collective one.
What I worry about the social media addiction debate is that it will again be an ideological twist where we will not look closely at the actions of Google, Facebook, etc, and instead reframe the problem as an issue with the individual, rather than an issue of a much larger scope.
Social media (here I’m mostly talking about sites and apps such as Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook, but most others certainly also qualify) are in fact mass surveillance tools that are engineered to profit from certain gambling and psychological techniques to force people to use them longer and thus be exposed to more advertisements. We know that Facebook and Google (Youtube) are very careful about the placement of their ads and the order of what is shown to us on the screen. They have access to hundreds of thousands of people at a time to experiment on emotional manipulation, in particular to heighten anxiety. There are dangers of combining — intentionally — the psychological manipulation that encourages gambling behaviour (not only was Facebook designed to be addictive, we know that there is also in the industry next door, AAA games, the trend of the last decade has been to create, attract or encourage "whale" players), gamification (which is a kind of psychological manipulation intricately related to the former point), and advertisement strategies that rely on low-grade fear (this blog has an interesting perspective and breakdown on low-grade fear as an advertising technique). In this article, an engineer reveals how Snapchat was engineered to maximize the users’ anxiety and make them not only more likely to check their accounts continuously throughout the day, also made teenagers more stressed about going on vacation and potentially losing a continuous internet connection.
We know that the big companies have been using advertisements to drive anxiety and FOMO (fear of missing out) for decades (at least since the 60s, if not earlier) to subtly but unmistakably encourage watchers to spend money, because the spending of money is something that relieves the brain of some anxiety, by releasing dopamine. We know that social media companies are primarily advertising companies. Their methods are eerily similar. Google results, Youtube ads and suggested video algorithms, the ways in which Facebook manipulates people and creates echo chambers, it can all be traced to advertisements and needing to sell stuff by increasing anxiety in the users.
So… social media addiction?
I don't think so.
But a constant state of stress and worry because you're afraid of being away from your social media accounts for hours or days or weeks at a time?
Social media anxiety?
Yeah, I think it fits better.
Update Friday, February 9 2018:
A big part of me is just like... if you can be addicted to social media, doesn’t that mean you’re addicted to social communication? Addicted to reading? Addicted to sending messages to people? I find the metaphor breaks down super quick that way, at least I feel that.— Gersande La Flèche🦉 (@gersandelf) February 10, 2018
Ya! So while “addiction” may work for some as a metaphor to describe their relationship with social media, divorced from the reality of addiction as a medical illness, there is some concrete evidence that social media is designed to increase anxiety in their users. Hence, my text— Gersande La Flèche🦉 (@gersandelf) February 10, 2018
So I guess my argument boils down to that social media as a way to be connected with people is a good thing, but social media companies are a bad thing and trying to hurt and manipulate and do surveillance on their users. Basically capitalism is evil.— Gersande La Flèche🦉 (@gersandelf) February 10, 2018