Let’s answer this once and for all.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn…all open at once. A very cluttered browser indeed.

Social media is bad for us! It’s unhealthy! We must quit it! Stop using it! NOW!

Chances are, you’ve probably heard many people say this throughout your lifetime, whether they are referring to you individually, or the generation you grew up in. It’s really a shame that we cannot do anything about this and just accept the fact that we’ve grown up in a generation that just cannot stop staring at their social media feed.

But why?

What are we addicted? Why are we constantly being told to stop using these applications? How malicious can they actually be? There are plenty of things to uncover here.

Social Media’s Problem

In his book, Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport discusses Facebook and how it views itself as a social media platform. When asked the question, “Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad For Us?”, Facebook replied: “According to the research, it really comes down to how you use the technology.” This answer is very ambiguous because of course everybody will use the app differently. Some people will only open it once a month and only log onto their laptop to see Facebook, while others check Facebook on their phones a few times per hour. For some people, social media can be a good thing: catching up with friends, meeting new people, getting the current events, while it can also be detrimental to our health as it has been proven to generate addiction in some people.

According to Jena Hilliard of the Addiction Center, social media addiction is “a behavioral addiction that is characterized as being overly concerned about social media, driven by an uncontrollable urge to log on to or use social media, and devoting so much time and effort to social media that it impairs other important life areas.” Between five and 10 percent of Americans are classified as such.

This has become a critical problem for users because these apps are designed to seek people’s attention and to try and keep people stuck onto the site. This idea is not new however, as Benjamin Day in 1830 realized “that his readers could become his product and the advertisers his customers.” Newport brings up Day in his chapter because he wants us to understand that the idea of selling our attention to advertisers is nearly two centuries old, and can partly explain why we are addicted to social media.

Cal Newport’s entire purpose for writing Deep Work is to help his audience regain their attention back from the various distracting sites and services they tend to and instead place all of that time and focus into learning and concentration, thus enabling them to be more efficient and proficient in their work. Social media plays a big role in trying to counter this and they tend to do it well. Newport calls the battle to regain your attention from social media a “David & Goliath battle against institutions that are both impossibly rich and intent on using this wealth to stop you from winning.” The company’s intent works very well among users because when asked, many people mention at least one or two small benefits they wouldn’t have if they had not logged on to the social media service. Newport calls this approach the Any Benefit Approach to Network Tool Selection, which means that “you’re justified in using a network tool if you can identify any possible benefit to its use, or anything you might possibly miss out on if you don’t use it.” This fear of missing out is called FOMO, and is a trigger in our brain that can cause anxiety in certain people if they feel like not checking social media will mean they are left out or unwanted. This effect is no longer surface level, but has instead transmitted to our brains and has caused us to think differently because of it.

With that in mind, I can finally explain to you why we are addicted to social media:

We are addicted to social media because these apps are designed to capture our attention and keep our attention for as long as possible, while impacting our brains the same way addictive drugs do.

Researchers have began to classify social media use in the same category as taking drugs because they both trigger the same part of the brain and according to the Addiction Center, they both allow the brain to “receive a reward and associate the drug or activity with positive reinforcement.” I scoffed the first time I read about this comparison, but the more I looked into it, these researchers weren’t fooling around. You can get addicted to anything, and social media has been one of the worst this decade.

What about the Developers?

Let’s look at the other side of the issue. Everybody always talks about how social media purposely grabs our attention and is ruining our lives, but have you ever thought about this idea at the human level?

Think about it: these app developers get asked to find a way to make the most money for a free-to-download app. Putting a price (flat or subscription) on the app would infinitely decrease user activity, so the options are limited. Selling the user’s data to advertisers is the obvious choice because it will make the developers the most money. Do they know this practice is bad for us? Possibly. Would they implement a new strategy if they knew another way to make just as much money but it would have a positive impact on our society? Most certainly. I guarantee you all that if any of us were in the shoes of the developer we would set up the app in a way that would make us the most money. That’s just how the human mind works.

What can you do for yourself?

Now that we know there is no way we can change the direction of these social media platforms, you must consider yourself as an individual as ask yourself how you can help regain time and focus form these apps. Newport suggests taking a few weeks off of being online and/or planning your leisure time more effectively. If you implement both of these methods, you will find not only that you may not need social media in your life, but you will notice an increase in your productivity because you have planned better leisure activities for your free time.

If there is one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that when it comes to social media and its issues, be selfish. I don’t see any way that the social media giants will solve the problem for everybody if it means they earn less money, therefore it is upon you to solve the issue of what social media is doing to you and how you can fix it. This is what Facebook meant when they said, “it really comes down to how you use the technology.”

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