The Future of Social Media, a Journey to Nowhere?

Posted by Peter Rudin on 30. July 2021 in Essay

Social Media Addiction     Credit: insights.som.yale.edu

Introduction

The digital age and the rise of Social Media have accelerated changes to our social systems with poorly understood functional consequences. According to Wikipedia, Social Media are interactive technologies that allow the creation or sharing/exchange of information, ideas, career interests, and other forms of expression via virtual communities and networks. While the definition of Social Media varies depending on the services offered, there are some common, generally accepted features: a) Users of social media generate and post content, such as text, digital photos or videos; b) Social media services distribute this content by connecting a user’s profile with those of other individuals or groups sharing the same interests; c) Their business model is based on monetizing the user profiles generated by the data exchanged at no cost to the user. Researchers, policymakers and users have identified several key issues related to Social Media and its accelerating global expansion. These include: The accumulation of enormous financial power held by a few corporations; Blocking innovation and competition; The spread of false news and debates about the limits of free speech; The threat to election integrity and democracy; The protection of privacy and personal integrity via brain-hacking. The Social Media Summit @ MIT held on April 22, 2021 with over 20’000 virtual attendees, brought together experts to discuss these issues and focus on solutions, which range from new oversight panels to breaking up big companies. “Social media is rewiring the central nervous system of humanity in real time,” said MIT Sloan professor Sinan Aral, who led the event. “We’re now at a crossroads between its promise and its peril.”

Why we post on Social Media

According to a recent study A computational reward learning account of social media engagement (nature.com) , more than four billion people are spending several hours per day on platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other more specialized forums. This pattern of social media engagement has been likened to an addiction in which people are driven to pursue positive online social feedback to the detriment of direct social interaction and even basic needs like eating and sleeping. Although a variety of motives might lead people to use Social Media, the popular portrayal of social media engagement represents a form of reinforcement learning (RL) driven by social rewards. In social media platforms, feedback on one’s behavior often comes in the form of a ‘like’—a signal of approval from another user regarding one’s post. Indeed, several lines of research support the idea that ‘likes’ engage similar motivational mechanisms as other, more basic types of rewards such as food or money. Although neuroscientific studies are largely constrained to the laboratory, such findings suggest that social media use might reflect the process of reward maximization. Reward learning processes on social media platforms are also evident in behavior as the receipt of ‘likes’ has behavioral consequences consistent with reward learning. For example, the number of ‘likes’ received for a post indicates satisfaction with that post, and in turn, more self-experienced happiness. Similarly, a user’s social media activity increases after placing a post, anticipating rewards by other users’ feedback, which in turn leads to a spiralling social media ecosystem measured by the number of ‘friends’ a user can account for. In contrast, jointly established user groups limit the number of participants, rewarding posts and competing for attention with more personal comments.

Use of Social Media and mental health issues

According to the latest 2021 report from the Pew Research Center 10 facts about Americans and Facebook | Pew Research Center, Facebook, the social media giant founded in 2004, now boasts more than 2.8 billion monthly users worldwide. The following statistics provide some background information regarding its usage: Around 69% of U.S. adults say they use Facebook; Among those seven-in-ten say that they visit the site daily and about 36% say they regularly get news from Facebook. Focusing on the consequences of Social Media’s use by young individuals, a 2017 report from the Royal Society for Public Health RSPH | #StatusofMind describes potential mental health issues among individuals under age 25. According to the report  91% of 16–24-year-olds use the internet for social networking; Social Media can be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol ; Rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen 70% in the past 25 years; Social Media users report being emotionally supported through their contacts, possibly fostering addiction.

Mounting evidence supports the suspicion that Social Media can be addictive and impact personality development with long-term consequences not yet understood. Within just 16 years the use of Social Media has exploded, with little or no understanding of its long-term consequences.

How Social Media might shape our identity

According to a recent article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, titled ‘Growing Up Wired: Social Networking Sites and Adolescent Psychosocial Development’, the researchers of the study state that children and adolescents are beginning to have their identities shaped by engaging with Social Media as sharing can provide positive feedback and supports self-esteem. Already back in 1967, the French Philosopher Guy Debord in ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, anticipated the emergence of Social Media with issues we encounter today. Social life is shifting from “having to appearing”  he claims. “At the same time all individual reality has become social.” Debord recognised that individuals were increasingly beset by social forces, a prescient observation considering the rise of internet-based Social Media 40 years later. Kate Eichhorn, a media historian, states in The End of Forgetting: Growing Up with Social Media, first published in 2015, that Social Media is certain to have some kind of profound effect on the development of identity, especially for those who have grown up with it—a group that includes pretty much everyone under twenty-five. Regarding its consequences Eichhorn sees both sides of the coin. On the one hand, she says, children and teenagers have gained a level of control that they didn’t have before. In the past, adults refused to acknowledge children’s own personality or imposed on them an idealized notion of innocence and purity. The arrival of the internet gave youngsters an unprecedented degree of self-determination. “If childhood was once constructed and recorded by adults and mirrored back to children (e.g., in a carefully curated family photo album or a series of home video clips), this is no longer the case,” Eichhorn writes. “Today, young people create images and put them into circulation without the interference of adults.” New technology—especially the smartphone—allows us to produce a narrative of our lives, to choose what to remember and what to contribute to our own mythos. On the other hand, growing up online, Eichhorn worries, might impede our ability to edit memories, cull what needs to be culled, and move on. “The potential danger is no longer childhood’s disappearance, but rather the possibility of a perpetual childhood,” she writes.

Social Media and the functionality of the human brain

From a neurological perspective, Social Media affects different brain functions in unique ways. It contains many combinations of stimuli that can trigger different reactions. According to a paper ‘What the brain “Likes”: neural correlates of providing feedback on social media’, published in a 2018 issue of Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, evidence increasingly suggests that neural structures that respond to rewards are also implicated in the processing of social rewards. The architecture of some social media platforms takes the form of what some neuroscientists are now calling ‘hyperstimulators’ – problematic digital delivery systems for rewarding addictive stimuli. According to a leading new theory, also known as predictive processing theory, Embodying addiction: A predictive processing account – ScienceDirect, hyperstimulants can interact with specific cognitive and affective mechanisms of the brain to produce precisely the sorts of pathological outcomes we see emerging today. Predictive processing casts the brain as a ‘prediction engine’ – something that is constantly attempting to predict the sensory signals it encounters in the world, minimizing the discrepancy (called the ‘prediction error’) between those predictions and the incoming neural signals. Over time such systems build up a ‘generative model’, a structured understanding of the statistical regularities in our environment that is used to generate predictions. This generative model is essentially a mental model of our world, including both immediate, task-specific information as well as longer-term information that constitutes our narrative sense of self. According to this model, predictive systems go about minimising prediction errors in two ways: either they update the generative model to reflect the world more accurately, or they behave in ways that bring the world better in line with their prediction. In this way, the brain forms part of an embodied predictive system that is always moving from uncertainty to certainty. As result, reducing potentially harmful surprises keeps us alive and well. Living well, in predictive processing terms, means being able to manage uncertainty. For people in good mental health, emotional feedback allows them to flexibly tune their expectations. In contrast, individuals with low self-esteem experience feelings such as helplessness, depression, isolation, lack of motivation and an inability to find pleasure in the world. Hence, the impact of Social Media very much depends on the quality and development of our personality. Vice versa, the use of Social Media might just as well hinder this process.

Conclusion

Historically our social adaptations evolved in the context of small hunter-gatherer groups solving local problems through vocalizations and gestures. Now we face complex global challenges from pandemics to climate change and we communicate on dispersed networks connected by digital technologies. Neither the evolutionary nor the technological changes to our social systems have come about with the express purpose of promoting global sustainability or quality of life. Both the structure of our social networks and the patterns of information that flow through them are directed by engineering decisions made to maximize profitability. We lack the scientific and regulatory framework that technology companies and their regulators need to apply for avoiding a potentially destructive outcome. Yet, we are moving ahead with no comprehension where this social media journey might lead us to.

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