With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Are Social Media Anti-Social?

This past Wednesday, I had the pleasure of being a panel member for a debate at the UN on social media. It launched the debate series “Point/Counter-point” organized by the United Nations Academic Impact team.  You can see the debate here.

We debated on the theme “social media are anti-social.” I was assigned to the team arguing in support of this point. I was unhappy with being asked to take this side – because I don’t agree with it! – but I was willing to do so with the understanding that I would argue that the very question of whether social media are anti-social is a faulty one. That is, like most technology, social media are neither good nor bad in and of themselves because the impact of social media depends on how they are used. Moreover, from a scientific standpoint, we know almost nothing about whether social media are actually making us more “anti-social” – less socially connected and less socially skilled.

After clearly stating this, however, my strategy was to highlight ways in which social media COULD be antisocial – emphasizing that the research to test these possibilities remains to be done. Perhaps that was one reason why we (my team mate BJ Mendelson and I) lost so spectacularly. At the same time, it was clear that the audience (whose votes determined the winning side) had already made up their minds before the debate even began. This was unsurprising because social media, as this era’s technological bugaboo, are absurdly polarizing. It’s either the scapegoat for all that is wrong, or the best hope for a utopian future.  And of course, the truth is always somewhere in between.

Coincidentally, this very debate had just been played out in relation to an inflammatory Newsweek article last week called “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?” A flurry of responses emerged, including an online Time Healthland article calling into serious question the Newsweek article’s review of evidence that the internet “makes” people crazy. Essentially, the Newsweek article is accused of being sensationalistic rather than doing what responsible journalism is supposed to do: (a) impartially seeking out and weighing the evidence that exists with a careful eye to the quality and direct implications of the science being cited, and (b) avoiding quoting scientific findings out of context.

I believe, however, that there is so much polarized debate because the research we need to weigh in on these issues has not yet been conducted. And that was my main point in the debate. We know almost nothing about the cause and effect relationship between social media or the internet and mental health: Are these technologies making us crazy, depressed, anxious, etc,…, or are people who are already troubled in offline life troubled no matter what the context? How do we measure anti-social, or crazy, or any other outcome that reflects the well-being of an individual? The plethora of unanswered questions makes for polarizing journalism.

One interesting possibility that the Newsweek article brought up and which I considered in the debate was the idea that social media may influence us in ways that are more powerful than other types of technology because they tap into something that is fundamentally rewarding to humans (and most mammals!): the need to be socially connected with others.

I made the point in the debate that, “Science is finding that social media are so rewarding, so motivating, that they essentially “highjack” our brain’s reward centers – the same brain areas that underlie drug addiction-  so that you see what all of us can attest to: people have difficulty disengaging from social media. They feel the need to constantly check their device for the next text, tweet, status update, or email. They feel obsessed. The documented existence of Facebook addiction attests to this. How many of us walk down the street, or eat dinner in a restaurant with our devices clutched in our hand or lying on the table right next to us like a security blanket. I know I do more often than I’d like.”

Indeed, we don’t walk down the street reading a book or watching TV. These technologies can be consuming, but the nature of social media – portable, brief, deeply social – creates a completely different set of temptations and rewards. Textbook theories of behavioral learning and reinforcement tell us that the way rewards are integrated into social media is a recipe for keeping us roped in. For example, if your goal is to,  say, make a rat in a cage press a bar as frequently as possible you should do the following: every once in a while, in a completely unpredictable way, give a reward when the bar is pushed. In contrast, if you give rewards every time they push the bar, they’ll become sated and push less. If you reward in a predictable way, they’ll press the bar just enough to get the reward and no more – because they know how many times they need to press the bar before the reward comes.

Now think about how we use our devices. We check our devices frequently (analogous to pressing the bar) because we’re never sure when an important message, really good piece of news or fascinating factoid will pop up (analogous to the unpredictable reward). So, we find ourselves with device in hand “pressing the bar” over and over again, all day long. The whole economy of social media (i.e., the way the creators of these platforms make their money) is hugely dependent on this very fact.

Now I have to stop and give a MAJOR caveat: This idea may be compelling, sounds like it could be right, but, from my reading of the literature, there is very little direct evidence that this is the case. All we know is that neurologically, aspects of social media and internet use are rewarding, calming, and pleasurable. It’s a far cry from “highjacking our brain,” a phrase I used in the debate for the sake of argument and hyperbole. At the same time, a growing number of people think this is a viable hypothesis, and one that we must put to the test.

By the end of the debate, I think we were all in agreement that when forced to pick a side, we could argue it. But really, we all felt the same thing: Whether social media are anti-social simply depends. It depends on who is using it, how they are using it, and why they are using it. And we just don’t have the scientific knowledge yet to understand these who’s, how’s, and whys.

I concluded my opening statement in the debate by saying, “Until we as a society spend the time, energy and resources to scientifically test how we are changed [by social media], we should proceed with caution and with the possibility in mind that social media could make us more anti-social.”

But BJ Mendelson may have summed it up best when he made a good old-fashioned fan boy reference: with great power comes great responsibility. We need to take the responsibility to look at, question, and try to understand the role of social media in our lives and in society.

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