Nov 30, 2020 - Technology

The social media addiction bubble

Illustration of a social media notification with a pill inside

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Right now, everyone from Senate leaders to the makers of Netflix's popular "Social Dilemma" is promoting the idea that Facebook is addictive.

Yes, but: Human beings have raised fears about the addictive nature of every new media technology since the 18th century brought us the novel, yet the species has always seemed to recover its balance once the initial infatuation wears off.

Why it matters: The "addiction" label, which has long divided experts, may blind us to actual solutions to social-media problems.

The big picture: "Facebook addiction" is not a formal diagnosis in the psychology manual, but a growing body of scholarly work describes the phenomenon, and wide familiarity with the habit-forming experience of social-media feeds gives it credibility.

The September debut of "The Social Dilemma" on Netflix sounded this alarm for millions of viewers.

  • The documentary centers on Tristan Harris, the former Google engineer who has been leading the assault on social media as cofounder of the Center for Humane Technology,
  • Harris started talking about smartphones as "slot machines" years ago: "Every time I check my phone, I"m playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?' This is one way to highjack people's minds, to form a habit."
  • At a Nov. 17 hearing to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Lindsey Graham borrowed Harris' "slot machine" language and promised further inquiries.

The catch: For psychologists, "Facebook addiction" is a subset of "internet addiction."

  • "Internet addiction" follows previous alarms over video game addiction, TV addiction, comic book addiction and so on.
  • "Social media is a drug" is the latest version of "TV is a drug," which was an update of "rock music is a drug," and so on.
  • Every new media technology or format, particularly those that gain popularity among younger users, has sparked a wave of fear and concern among adults that kids' attention is being hijacked and their minds are being warped.
  • Media historians call these reactions "moral panics," and many view them as ways of deflecting attention from deeper social ills.

Facebook largely rejects claims that its service addicts users by design.

  • In a Facebook document rebutting "The Social Dilemma," the company argues, "Facebook builds its products to create value, not to be addictive."
  • "We certainly do not want our products to be addictive," Zuckerberg told Graham at the Senate hearing. "We want people to use them because they’re meaningful. But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s inconclusive and most of the research suggests that the vast majority of people do not perceive or experience these services as addictive or have issues."
  • Of note: Twitter's Dorsey took a different line: "I do think, like anything else, these tools can be addictive and we should be aware of that, acknowledge it, and make sure that we are making our customers aware of better patterns of usage."

Between the lines: Critics of the addiction theory of social media argue that it makes people feel more powerless than they are.

  • "The Four Myths of Healthy Tech," by Amanda Lenhart and Kellie Owens of the Data & Society research group, argues the social media addiction theory is a form of "biological determinism" that discounts the roles played by culture and individual agency.
  • "'Biological determinism'... suggests that our 'Paleolithic' brains cannot resist 'God-like' technology, placing too much power in the hands of tech companies to both create and destroy our capacity for attention," they write. "But attention is not a fixed biological entity, it is a value-laden social category; people stop using social media of their own volition all the time."

Addiction theories also promote a sense of powerlessness by imposing "all or nothing" thinking, as sociologist Sherry Turkle argued in her 2011 book "Alone Together."

  • "To combat addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance," Turkle wrote. "But we are not going to 'get rid' of the internet. We will not go 'cold turkey' or forbid cell phones to our children.... The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless."

Our thought bubble: Addictions typically are driven by an effort to numb pain or escape boredom, and solutions need to address demand for the addiction, not just the supply.

  • People with fulfilling jobs, healthy families and nourishing cultures are a lot less likely to get addicted to Facebook or anything else.
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