The hypodermic needle delivers intoxicating drugs into our brain via our bloodstream. Today, the addictive drug is compelling content, and the needle is the smartphone.
From its gratifying sounds and bright, seductive colors to its likable sights and images; social media is becoming as addictive and ultimately destructive as most of the drugs we warn our children against.
As a former principal, I saw social media addiction in full force in the classroom. Attention span is down, while depression and anxiety are up. We must recognize these platforms for what they are: addiction machines. We should also treat them as such.
Most of us would be ashamed if we knew how much time we actually spend on social media every day. App monitoring company App Annie has revealed that the average person spends 4.8 hours on their phone every day, which is a third of our total waking hours.
The addictive quality inherent in social media is no secret in Silicon Valley. Even Chamath Palihapitiya, Facebook’s former vice president of user growth, said he felt “tremendous guilt.”
“I think we’ve created tools that destroy the social fabric of how society works,” he said, before admitting that even his kids “have no right to use this shit.”
Many tricks used to keep users online as long as possible are borrowed directly from slot machines and gambling sites, as noted by Natasha Schüll, author of Addicted by design. For example, the “pull-to-refresh” feature, where swiping the screen down refreshes the content, is taken straight from the slot’s manual. In what’s called a “play loop” (those cycles of uncertainty, anticipation, and feedback), rewards keep us engaged enough to register our full engagement over the long term.
Likewise, the “infinite scroll” feature of apps such as Facebook and TikTok means that dopamine-releasing short-form content never ends. At least the cigarettes and alcohol are sold out. The same cannot be said for content on social media platforms.
Social media addiction works much like substance addiction; a Michigan State University study found a link between heavy social media use and impaired and risky decision-making among drug addicts.
In South Korea, the problem of Internet addiction is even more prevalent. Authorities suspect that up to 20% of the population is at serious risk of Internet addiction. As a result, they funnel public funds into digital detox programs, which come in the form of school-based counseling, drug surveys, and even drug camps.
As human beings, we are inclined to revel in pleasure before recognizing and responding to evil. Indeed, in the 19th century, cocaine was freely available in pharmacies and cocaine was still found in Coca-Cola until 1903.
Similarly, between the 1930s and 1950s, cigarettes were actively promoted and prescribed by doctors, with marketing copy for cigarettes saying, “Give your throat a vacation… Smoke a new cigarette.”
With social media, overwhelming science is coming and we can no longer ignore the results. A 2018 Lancet study found that those who check Facebook late at night were more likely to feel depressed. Another 2018 study found that the less time people spent on social media, the fewer symptoms of depression and loneliness they showed.
Indeed, internal research by Mark Zuckerberg’s company found that Instagram addiction harms the health and academic performance of more than 6% of teens, causing depression, anxiety and anorexia.
I saw that myself. Kids in my class don’t just talk about site addiction. They talk about being caught in a “loop”, where they would cycle through the 7-8 social media sites they follow. Once they’ve gone through them all, enough time has passed to start the whole process over and mop up any fresh new content that’s been uploaded in the meantime.
For many of these children, their social life is inextricably linked to a platform that has been shown to increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia. That scares me.
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Yet what scares me the most is the direction of travel of these social media sites. I’ve written before about how the Metaverse could be a boon to education. But that’s only if the issues embedded in social media aren’t copied and pasted into these new virtual worlds.
Regulation and education have finally caught up with cigarettes and cocaine. Now, I believe that social media sites need to be transparent about the addictive mechanisms built into their platforms.
Children should be required to verify their age before creating an account, and time restrictions should be implemented by law for those using these social media sites who are under the age of 18. Much like the addiction warnings that now come with cigarettes, it’s time to post warnings on social media sites that use addictive technology.
The business model of cigarette manufacturers relies on addiction to drive sales. Social media websites rely on addiction to harvest and sell as much data as possible.
It’s time we recognized the addictive damage built into the fabric of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Next, we must work to eradicate heart reliance on these platforms if we are to create a safer and healthier online world for our children.
Leon Hady is a former director and founder of Guide Educationwho has trained thousands of teachers