NEW: Social media sites may be controlling your mind – here’s how to take matters into your own hands

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The Sunday Mail

Simon McCarthy Jones

How can you live the life you want, avoiding the distractions and manipulations of others? To do this, you need to know how you work. “Know thyself,” urged the Ancients. Unfortunately, we are often bad at this.

But on the other hand, the others know us better and better. Our intelligence, sexual orientation – and much more – can be calculated from our likes on Facebook. Machines, using data from our digital footprint, are better judges of our personality than our friends and family. Soon, artificial intelligence, using data from our social networks, will know even more. The challenge of the 21st century will be how to live when others know us better than ourselves.

But how free are we today? There are industries dedicated to capturing and selling our attention – and the best bait is social networking. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have brought us together around the campfire of our common humanity. Yet they have costs, both personal and political. Users must decide whether the benefits of these sites outweigh their costs.

This decision must be freely taken. But is it possible, if social networking sites are potentially addictive? The decision must also be informed. But is it possible, if we don’t know what is happening behind the curtain?

Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, recently spoke about the thought process that led to the construction of this social network. He described it as:

How can we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?
To do this, the user had to be given:
A little dopamine hits every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or post…and that will inspire you to contribute more.
Parker continued:

This is exactly the kind of thing a hacker like me would invent because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… Inventors, creators, that’s me, that’s Mark [Zuckerberg]…understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.
Human needs create human vulnerabilities

What are these vulnerabilities? Humans have a basic need to belong and a basic desire for social status. As a result, our brain processes information about ourselves as a reward. When our behavior is rewarded with things like food or money, our brain’s “evaluation system” kicks in. Much of this system is also activated when we encounter relevant information. This information therefore carries a lot of weight. That is why, if someone says your name, even in a noisy room, it automatically appears in your consciousness.

Information relating to our reputation and social rank is particularly important. We are wired to be sensitive to this. We understand social dominance at only 15 months.

Social networking sites grab us because they contain relevant information and relate to our social status and reputation. The greater your need to belong and be popular, and the more your brain’s reward centers respond to improving your reputation, the more irresistible the site’s siren song.

Are social networks addictive?
Gambling is addictive because you don’t know how many bets you will have to make before you win. BF Skinner discovered it in his pigeon lab at Harvard in the 1950s. If pigeons got food every time they pecked at a button, they pecked a lot. If they only occasionally received food when they pecked at a pimple, they not only pecked a lot more, but they did so frantically and compulsively.
One could argue that Skinner’s Pigeon Lab was resurrected at Harvard in 2004, with two modifications. It was called Facebook. And he didn’t use pigeons.

When you check Facebook, you cannot predict whether someone will have left you relevant information or not. Social networking sites are slot machines that pay gold for relevant information. This is why billions of people pull their levers. So, can they be addictive?

Facebook reportedly originally marketed itself as “college addiction.” Today, some researchers claim that Facebook addiction “has become a reality”. However, it is not a recognized psychiatric disorder and there are problems with the concept.

People undertake many activities on Facebook, from games to social networks. The term “Facebook addiction” therefore lacks specificity. Also, since Facebook is just one social networking site among many, the term “social media addiction” would seem more appropriate.

Yet the term “addiction” itself remains potentially problematic. Addictions are generally considered chronic illnesses that cause problems in your life. Yet a 5-year follow-up study found that many excessive behaviors considered addictions — such as exercise, sex, shopping, and video games — were fairly temporary. Also, excessive use of social media does not have to cause problems for everyone. Indeed, labeling excessive involvement in an activity as an “addiction” could lead to an overpathologization of everyday behaviors. Context is key.

Nevertheless, excessive use of social media has been convincingly shown to lead to symptoms associated with addiction. This includes becoming preoccupied with these sites, using them to alter your mood, needing to use them more and more to get the same effects, and experiencing withdrawal effects when use stops, causing you to often to start using again. The best estimate is that about 5% of teenage users experience significant levels of addiction-like symptoms.

Take back control
How can we benefit from social networking sites without being consumed by them? Companies could redesign their sites to mitigate the risk of dependency. They might use default opt-out settings for features that encourage addiction and make it easier to self-regulate their use. However, some argue that asking tech companies “to be less good at what they do seems like a ridiculous request.” Government regulation may therefore be necessary, perhaps similar to that used with the tobacco industry.

Users might also wonder if personal reasons make them vulnerable to problematic use. Factors that predict excessive drinking include an increased tendency to experience negative emotions, an inability to cope well with daily problems, a need for self-promotion, loneliness and fear of missing out. These factors will of course not apply to everyone.

Finally, users could empower themselves. It is already possible to limit time on these sites using apps such as Freedom, Moment and StayFocusd. The majority of Facebook users have voluntarily taken a break from Facebook, although it can be difficult.

“I am the master of my destiny, I am the captain of my soul”, launch the famous lines of Invictus. Unfortunately, future generations may find them incomprehensible. – The conversation

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