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OP-ED: A digital intoxication

  • Published at 10:49 am June 7th, 2021
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Our addiction to social media has led to a culture of disinterest

“There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: Illegal drugs and software.”

- Edward Tufte

Taslima feels an uncontrollable urge to use a phone and log into her social media accounts (it was stolen), but, when asked about what was so important that she was missing out on, she cannot answer the question clearly.

Now more than ever, we are becoming more and more dependent on our phones and social media. We cannot go a day without using our phones and logging into social media. 

Most of our work is becoming more and more geared towards social media. But what if this dependency is more than an obsession, an addiction perhaps, one which affects our day-to-day life? 

When we are detached from social media, why do we feel this uncontrollable desire to reattach? Where does this urge come from? And why is it having serious psychological effects on our behaviour?

We have this constant fear of missing out, often referred to as FOMO, this extreme fear of not being included or missing out on a social event, and this compels us to use social media continously. 

But, in reality, there isn’t much we are missing out on when we are offline. 

As social creatures, humans are naturally curious about other members of their society. With social media, people are now more connected than ever before. This hyperconnectivity between people was unimaginable even a decade or so ago. 

With the click of a button, we are able to learn about hundreds of people, what they are up to, and connect with them instantaneously. Obsessed with looking into other people’s lives, we are isolating ourselves from our own.

An addiction like any other

So, how do we become addicted? These social media sites create a dopamine-inducing virtual environment, which hooks the user into an endless loop, much like gambling and recreational drugs. 

But is this normal? A Netflix documentary released in 2020, The Social Dilemma, points out many impacts of social media on human psychology and some alarming sides of the tech industry.

Social media uses an interface that is similar to the mechanism of a slot machine, the users getting hooked, hoping to find something good every time they refresh their feed, and this continuous checking of devices ensures that they stay within the loop. 

The AI is designed to keep social media users on their platforms as long as possible -- the more their users spend time on their platforms the better it is for their business.

A study on addictive behavior shows the characteristics of social media are similar to any other substance use disorder. According to experts, this can be seen in several ways: 

Salience: Being preoccupied with social media may be a sign of addictive social media use

Mood modification: Using social media to deal with negative emotions

Tolerance/craving: Gradually increasing the amount of time spent on social media in order to receive the same rewards

Withdrawal: Suffering distress if not allowed to access or prohibited from using social media. 

Conflict/functional impairment: Because of social media use, sacrificing other obligations and/or causing harm to other important life areas

Relapse/Loss of control: Wanting or trying to control the use of social media but failing to achieve it 

A rush of temporary happiness

The dopamine reward system in our body has helped us to work hard and achieve more than we would have otherwise, providing us with the reward of the feeling of happiness. But it seems we are misusing this dopamine reward system, getting a rush of happiness with no effort, finding it in our phones. 

That buzzing sound of a new notification, refreshing the newsfeed, endlessly scrolling down, new likes and comments, all of these give us a rush of dopamine, leading us to become addicted to this particular method of acquiring the happiness hormones. 

As a result, we are becoming more easily bored, finding it increasingly difficult to find anything else of interest as everything else requires effort and hard work. That’s why we are looking for an easier way to get that feeling, by just using our phones.

We become alarmed by any statistics of substance abuse, but something like that is being misused constantly under our noses, an invisible line of cocaine, with the usage of social media skyrocketing in the last decade. 

Worrisome numbers

A report from Science Direct shows almost 210 million people worldwide suffer from social media and internet addictions. 

A CBS report shows that 29% of 18 to 24-year-old Americans admitted to being addicted to social media in 2017 and 34% of young adults experience fear of missing out when not on social media. Additionally, Statista has shown that 43% of teens feel bad when they don’t get enough “likes” on social media.

Almost 500,000 new users are joining Facebook every day -- six new profiles every second, with 76% of Facebook members logging in every day. The average session of usage per member is 35 minutes. 

The consequences of these new technologies might be greater than we realize. While it may look harmless on the surface, using social media sites beyond a certain extent may be impacting both our physical and mental states in ways that will need to be sorted out in the future. 

Ahmed Bin Kader Oni is an undergrad student of journalism and media studies at Jahangirnagar University.

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