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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32 Comments

  1. I made an analogy awhile ago to my sister where I was talking about the “likes” on facebook and how they are like little food pellets, and regardless of how much you say “oh, I don’t care about this website” when you start using it, everyone becomes addicted because we get that unpredictable reward based on things we say and what we do. So now, we go to a restaurant and are not only enjoying the food and the company, we are letting everyone know where we are! If we “Check in” at one restaurant and get 16 likes and check in at another and get no attention, where are we more likely to go the next time we are hungry? It’s a strange world, and I think that you are right on with what you are saying, and it is always great for us to be aware of our relationship to these media devices that way at least we can notice that we always have our phone near us, and intentionally take breaks from it to see how that feels.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment! Taking a break from our devices and noticing how that feels is a great idea – because it’s not just taking the break, it’s tuning into our relationship with these devices and how they influence our day-to-day sense of well-being. I’ve noticed so much more about my relationship with technology since I started blogging and using more social media. There are days when I feel that I am in a pretty dysfunctional relationship! :-)

      I checked out your blog. Great!

      Reply
    • I’ve noticed the same phenomenon when it came to likes when I thought about my other blogs (outside of this site). With less visitors or likes I tend to go in hiatus of blog more privately more often. Although I can’t necessarily say it’s a bad thing like the blogger said since it can go both way. And it is interesting to note how one feels when one distance themselves from their devices.

      Reply
      • that’s interesting – you mean if a blog you follow is getting less traffic or fewer likes, you tend to feel maybe it’s not as worthwhile? It’s hard to escape when there are so many indicators of whether people think something is “good” or “bad.”

  2. Hey there,
    I also reacted strongly to the Newsweek article–I’ve read many of the text the author cites. While I’m not sure about the claim that it’s making us crazy, incessant connectivity does seem to be changing our brains, and certainly our habits! As a teacher, I’m concerned with the widespread adoption of mobile devices in schools especially because, like you said, there is little research out there. It will be fascinating to see what emerges in the next few years. Here’s my post on Tech. Adoption in Schools:

    http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/2012/07/15/reckless-technology-adoption/

    Reply
    • Really interesting blog! Thanks for bringing my attention to it! I wonder if the educational system is where the impact (whatever one exists) of these media will be felt first!

      Reply
      • And thank you for checking it out! I think we’re already feeling the impact, because we have pressure to try and engage students using new technologies. I think it takes guts for teachers and administrators to question whether or not certain tools should be used in school, regardless of how widespread they are embraced outside the school building.

  3. I was also writing about “Does social media make us unsociable” at http://rusticrecluse.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/does-social-media-make-us-unsociable/
    I find it a little frustrating when my meal buddies suddenly stop talking and begin tweeting at the table, checking in etc. Even during a F2F conversation I realise we check our cellphones incessantly as if afraid to miss out on a status update or something. Social media helps us to keep in touch, most of the time. I get to drop a tweet to pals I haven’t spoken with in ages and they’ll respond. It’s a good starting point, I believe. It’s really a matter of the individuals – whether they’ll keep up with the interaction thereafter.

    Reply
    • Really liked your post. The notion of unsociability is a great one – it’s about how these tools can interfere with the depth with which we choose to and have time to engage with people.

      I feel the same way about table tweeting! But, to my chagrin, I’ve been guilty of it myself a few times (and other times simply refused to give in to the impulse). The very effectiveness of these devices and the uber-connectedness we have by using them make them seem like super powerful tools rather than technology we control. I’ve been thinking lately about my “relationship” with my devices, and whether it is dysfunctional. Relationship!!! Weird anthropomorphizing!

      Reply
      • Indeed, it affects our definition of “relationship” with people around us. Are friends on facebook = friends that we understood of the past? I like the way LinkedIn puts it – everyone is a “connection”. I’m comfortable with such terms.

        I’ve been guilty of table tweeting too, but seldom so, probably due to my paranoia that prevents me from updating my statuses too often or checking-in wherever I am. Speaking of relationships with devices, I think I might be married to my laptop. :)

  4. Reblogged this on F3WSINC.

    Reply
  5. Well written. On my side, I don’t think it makes me less social. I use WP, FB, and everything else as a means to facilitate the popularity of my blog. When a social situation in “real life” pops up, no way am I going to say, “Sorry, I have to talk to all these other people I haven’t met, I don’t have time for you, here, now.” By the by, FB is also very useful for event planning and homework help. ; )

    Reply
    • I agree! And some early research suggests that social media don’t take away from F2F time at all. But I think we’re only beginning to understand the costs and benefits.

      Reply
  6. I’m glad the debate was webcast, I watched all of it. It’s also good to get the chance to hear you in person, very good job. Rather than a coherent comment, here’s a few snippets I recorded while watching.

    I think your side, both of you, made better points, but particularly actually addressed the issue more seriously and with emphasis on facts, not just opinions, and particularly not just rah-rah sales pitches.

    Great answer on Supervisor C, that was exactly what I thought, silly way to ask the question, in that media was irrelevant, just the nature of the boss.

    The “choice” argument was bogus, in my view. He was mostly attacking a strawman (seemed to equate regulation with censorship) and ignored the obvious flaws of choice, esp. by the young who make bad choices, e.g. drugs/booze, bad sex, violence, We try to teach kids something not just let them do as they wish (brings up the image of Lord of the Flies). Plus what about peer pressure getting people to make bad choices.

    You handled the studies questions well, breaking down exactly how the studies need to be far more precise and ask the kind of questions you do. I had the chance to search the oxytocin claim during the webcast and seem to have found it comes from Paul J. Zak (Dr. Love), an economist at Claremont who now seems to claim neurology credentials without any evidence of actual training. No factual rebuttal is available but frankly this sounds like a flakey source to me.

    Self-reporting is a big deal, as you emphasized. The digital_nation program used example of self-reported success in multitasking then being debunked by actual studies at Stanford.

    The anecdote (I think from digital_nation since there was such a scene) of the kid who joked he’d learn to have a conversation someday is misleading. He’s a MIT geek (as I am) and he was pimping the question. Such use of anecdotes is exactly what you’re speaking against, get some serious facts, not glib sound-bites.

    I hate to use this parallel, given recent events, but it is so apt. Your opponents largely used the NRA argument, that guns aren’t the issue, how they get used are. Certainly that’s part of it, but without guns, no mass murders, without social media, no cyber-bullying. The tool matters! And tools can and sometimes should be regulated. Do we just let anyone drive a car any way they want or do we have sensible rules and licensing requirements? That libertarian POV is nonsense. Choice is not freedom if it kills you or addicts you or alters your behavior is some way you didn’t choose for it to.

    Finally, I think it really is necessary to distinguish between texting (which I wouldn’t label as social media, just an alternative to phone) and actual social media (with Twitter somewhere in between). Texting, esp. by kids is the thing we all notice, the head buried in the device, the urgent desire to interrupt whatever they’re do and respond to the beep. I’ll elaborate on this elsewhere, but I think this is this Pavlovian training we have that calls are urgent, might somehow be an emergency. These days with calls most people look at the caller id and then usually push ignore (or at least say “I have to take this.”). But texting combines the actions, you both know how it is and what the tiny message is with the same amount of effort as merely checking caller id. What irritates most people is seeing the top of someone’s head you’re trying to speak with because they’re looking down at the device, but how often is that really Facebook or other social networking vs texts.

    Again I’m glad this was recorded. I take your point that you didn’t really want to be for or against the proposition per se, but to emphasize the need for understanding the consequences. Again I fall back on the lack of concern (and foresight) when alcohol distillation was invented, and also the initial synthesis (or concentration?) of opiates and releases those through patent medicine, not even prescriptions (or that heroin was supposed to be a wonder drug, or the poster child, thalidomide). BJ sorta hit some of the things I’d hit, that this is an for-profit industry moving as fast as it can and debunking all criticism or even out-and-out denialism (like our friends in fossil fuels) – why do we not assume some of the motives to move without study and as fast as possible isn’t just a cynical attempt to extract maximum wealth from the IPO (having been in startups and around VCs I promise this is the only thought). So, congrats on the much more lucid and sensible positions your side took.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your, as always, thoughtful and thought-provoking comments.

      I am very interested in why you distinguish texting from other types of computer-mediated communications (CMC). Please let me know when you elaborate on this elsewhere. Perhaps I’m conflating social media with CMCs. I guess with social media, like Facebook, there is a social network building component that is not there in texting. That distinction, if that’s what you’re getting at, is important! In terms of studying it, I do distinguish among these different platforms and forms of CMC but I think I’ll be much more careful with the terminology I use when just talking about this stuff (in which I lump everything together).

      And I agree, it’s the texting with head down, ignoring the world around, that raises people’s hackles (is that the right phrase?). I do wonder, with the increasing use of mobile apps, though, whether someone bent over their device might be just as likely to be checking their twitter or FB newsfeed these days….

      And yes, it was an inaccurate and cheap shot to bring up the “learning to have a conversation” anecdote. Honestly, I just remember reading that in Alone Together (Turkle) and used it to make a point. I _thought_ she described it as coming from a teenager in a local highschool that she worked with, but honestly, I have no real idea of the source or of its accuracy. Mea Culpa!

      Reply
      • Actually in terms of the learning to have a conversation the incident I was recalling was a MIT student in the digital_nation documentary actually saying this in his own words (I was citing from memory but believe I’m right on this since I reacted to his manner seeing him as younger version of those I had known). I don’t remember Turkle saying anything about this (she was also in that documentary, plus, IIRC, had section on their web site).

        As to texting I partially address that in http://dailydouq.wordpress.com/2012/07/24/kids-dont-talk-on-phone/ but I didn’t really make the distinction with FB. That’s actually a good subject for a future post, kind of a what is social media (not literally) vis-a-vis how it affects behavior.

  7. Maybe there’s a problem with the heading on this very interesting post – regarding power and responsibility. Something inanimate surely has neither power (of itself) nor responsibility. The same applies to the theme of the debate – “Social media are anti-social”. Everything depends on how the thing is used. As the folks in the NRA say, it’s not the guns that kill, it’s the people. The problem being that both guns and social media are inherently dangerous when used inappropriately, and the temptation to use them inappropriately is very great indeed. The issue comes down to whether we can educate ourselves to be aware of the dangers (as well as the benefits) and to discipline ourselves avoid the dangers at all times. In the end it’s a matter of individual choice, but the earlier we begin the process of education and character-building with children and young people the more likely it will be that future generations will be aware of the dangers, avoid the pitfalls and make best use of what is (when used thoughtfully, creatively and mindfully) potentially wonderful technology. After all, it’s a wonderful thing to connect with people across the world, access their thoughts and learn from their knowledge and experience! .

    Reply
    • I agree 100%. I think doing the proper research on these questions will allow us not only to fully appreciate the amazing benefits of social media and other types of computer-mediated communications, but also understand risks. Thanks for your comment!

      Reply
  8. Tracy,
    I’ve given you a shout-out on my blog for inspiring me to continue to think critically about technology issues. Have a great weekend!

    http://mindfulstew.wordpress.com/2012/07/26/spreading-the-good-will/

    Reply
  9. There, you see? I knew there was a reason I’m staying off of Facebook. I’m preserving my sanity.

    Reply
    • Many people feel that way. However, that truly is NOT the point I am trying to make. I think there are probably immense benefits and significant costs of social media like Facebook, but we just don’t know what these are yet and need to do the science to find out!! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      Reply
      • I was being facetious, and I’m all for science. We are experimenting with ourselves in unprecedented ways, not just with social media, but with the mobile electronic devices that we use to access all sorts of web information, communication and entertainment. We are plunging ahead at a breakneck pace and we have no idea where we’re going.

      • Ha! I don’t always register facetiousness in text. Perhaps I’m too earnest :).

      • My bad. I’ve never mastered the emotocon.

  10. Had a similar conversation the other day… is a person being anti social when sitting in a room on a device(phone or tablet/pad) vs. sitting in a room reading a book? Both could be reading but one is connected to the outer world and therefore less approachable some thought. Next, the experiment that played out in our house over the holidays when our 12 y/o was banned from her devices for the holiday due to anti social, family, behavior turned into something very unexpected. She had been very social with friends on the devices but without realness. She didn’t notice this until after a stint without the electronics. She then noticed she actually preferred to engage in person and her mood positively changed for those living with her as well. Ending in, her now self monitoring her screen time and being able to see her past usage as unhealthy. Proving your point it is in how and who is using the social media.

    Reply
    • Wow, really interesting! It sounds like you have a very insightful daughter! Perhaps this is also suggesting that to recalibrate our use of devices, and notice the impact on us, we just need to take a break. I think we sometimes feel doom and gloom about the potential antisocial effects of using these devices. Certainly we parents worry about this! But I also think that we won’t all go off the tracks as long as we keep just a little mindful. Thanks for sharing. What a great story!

      Reply
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