The Syringe of Social Media

 Disclaimer: this post is not a statement against interests. I am a firm believer that moderation is a fine approach to most things in life. Donuts, bourbon, and social media are all OK - so long as not taken to excess.

Several articles over the past few weeks have unveiled research that tends to illuminate suspicions which have been brewing for a while. The most sobering piece was published by the Wall Street Journal about two weeks ago - "How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds." If you are wondering whether this is even a valid thesis, ask yourself whether you have enjoyed elevator conversations in the past several years, or whether you have noticed an almost reflexive reach for the phone when passengers cross the threshold into the cab.


Dopamine, courtesy Wikipedia

Citing several studies, the WSJ observes,

Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.

But, the fallout is not simply during the time spent hunched over table scrolling through your friends' latest coffee forays. Drawing upon several reports, including the Journal of Social Psychology, the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, and Applied Cognitive Psychology, the article warns of various impacts. For example, a study of 520 undergraduates at the University of California, San Diego, found that academic performance increased proportionally to the distance students were from their phones. And, social skills are affected, too. The WSJ article reports,

It isn’t just our reasoning that takes a hit when phones are around. Social skills and relationships seem to suffer as well. Because smartphones serve as constant reminders of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, they pull at our minds when we’re talking with people in person, leaving our conversations shallower and less satisfying.

One ex-social media executive explains that the attractions of social media are not accidental. In an interview with Axios, former Facebook president Sean Parker explains, "The thought process that went into building these applications ... was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever, and that’s going to get you to contribute more content.”

These effects are being noticed by advertisers. An article at the American Marketing Association website is titled, "Social Media Triggers a Dopamine High."

To be sure, social media has played and can continue to play a critical role in promoting important ideas and sharing critical news. Recent natural disasters and civic emergencies have demonstrated the vital role of connectivity. Commercial enterprise, as well benefits (as do customers - a colleague shared that a Facebook post about a negative experience with a retailer resulted in a nearly immediate response and effort to "make things right").

But, like donuts and bourbon, moderation may be advised.

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