Facebookâ€™s recent acknowledgment that social media may be making its users feel bad in some cases is a significant milestone. So far, the technology industry hardly has talked about the downsides of their products. Now a realization seems to be setting in that perhaps something has gone wrong along the way.
Academic research that Facebook cited in a corporate blog post documented that when people spend a lot of time passively consuming information they feel worse. For example, reading Facebook posts for even 10 minutes can put people in a bad mood, and clicking or liking too many links and posts can have a negative effect on mental health. Some researchers also believe that reading rosy stories about others leads to negative comparisons about oneâ€™s life and that being online too much reduces in-person socializing.
Social media may well be making many of us unhappy, jealous and anti-social.
While Facebook said that as a result of the assessments, it would make some changes to its platform (e.g. give people more control of what they see and help with suicide prevention), it also highlighted some of the benefits of using the social network. It pointed to research it helped conduct which concludes that â€śsharing messages, posts and comments with close friends and reminiscing about past interactionsâ€ť can make people feel better. Facebook said it is working with sociologists and scientists to find ways to enhance â€śwell-being through meaningful interactionsâ€ť and more-active engagement.
â€śIn sum, our research and other academic literature suggests that itâ€™s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being,â€ť Facebook said. It posits that if we engage or interact with others more on its platform, we will be happier. But that approach doesnâ€™t seem to be an effective solution for those who canâ€™t pull themselves away from such platforms. The Pew Research Center estimates that 24 percent of teens go online â€śalmost constantly,â€ť for example. It is becoming a matter of addiction.
In July 2016, former Google â€śdesign ethicistâ€ť Tristan Harris published the essay â€śA Slot Machine in Our Pocket,â€ť which detailed the many ways in which technology affects peopleâ€™s minds and makes them addicted. He drew a direct line of descent to phones and computer screens from the numerous techniques that slot-machine designers use to entice gamblers to sit for hours losing money.
These techniques are similar to the work of psychologist B.F. Skinner, who in the 1930s put rats in boxes and taught them to push levers to receive a food pellet. They would push the levers only when hungry, though. To get the rats to press the lever repeatedly, even when they did not need food, he gave them a pellet only some of the time, a concept now known as intermittent variable rewards.
The casinos took variable rewards to a new level, designing multiple forms of rewards into slot machines. Those machines now bring in the majority of casino profits. Players not only receive payouts at seemingly random intervals but also partial payouts that impart the feeling of a win even if the player in fact loses money overall on a turn.
These techniques entice humans to keep playing, because our brains are hard-wired to become addicted to variable rewards, as Skinner had found. And it is intermittent variable rewards that have us checking our smartphones for emails, new followers on Twitter or more likes on photographs we posted on Facebook.
The â€śbottomless bowlâ€ť of information we are served also leaves us always seeking more.
So we need to be aware of what we are up against. Technology, when used correctly, can be wonderful. But perhaps the best solution is just to use technology in moderation.
Wadhwa is Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University .