(Social Media) Addiction is Evolutionary

Evolution Helps Explain Addiction

Several years ago, Radiolab had an episode about addiction called The Fix. It featured Dr. Anna Rose Childress, who discussed the idea that those who suffer from addiction are simply more receptive to rewards from the pleasure center, or, “they are the fittest of the fit in evolutionary terms”. The theory is that we, as humans, evolved to be very responsive to the things that trigger the pleasure center, because these are things that kept us alive and helped us find a mate. Sweet fruit is safer to eat than bitter berries. Humans that were driven to get up first thing in the morning and beat everyone else to the orange tree after tasting the sweet fruit were more likely to survive than those who would eat whatever berries they found on the ground. Those that were most motivated by the feeling of being hugged by a loved one, would work harder to find a mate. So as a species, we evolved to be responsive to our pleasure center.

This is a feature that is no longer crucial to survival in the modern world. We go to a grocery store for our food, where everything is safe to eat. But this hasn’t changed the fact that we are still very responsive to our pleasure center, some more than others. So when a drug is able to trigger that pleasure center, we are also very responsive – and continue to seek it out. Those that are most susceptible to drug addiction, are those that are most attuned to their pleasure center. Historically, they would have been the individuals that would have worked the hardest for the best food, been best at finding a sexual partner, or built the safest house. Up until recently, humans have been rewarded for being overly receptive to the rewards of the pleasure center. Now, as Jad Abumrad put it, “it is a weakness born of a strength”.


Another Evolutionary Trait

In a study published in Frontiers in Psychology, Samuel Veissière and Moriah Stendel, both of McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry, argue that evolution plays a similar role in explaining our behavior on social media. Historically, it was important for humans to constantly watch and be watched by others to pick up on social cues and cultural norms. By constantly monitoring those around us, we learned how to interact with others, forming bonds that could save our lives. We respond strongly to feedback on our interactions, because this helps confirm we are behaving according to societal norms. This is how we formed groups that were able to act as one (culture), overtaking groups that could not behave cohesively. Jonathan Haidt does an excellent job of explaining why this is important in The Righteous Mind, using a team of rowers that actg as one as his metaphor.

These evolutionary tendencies have kicked into overdrive with access to social media. Like those who are extremely attuned to rewards from the pleasure center, many of us constantly crave the ability to monitor our friends’ every move, and to have our friends monitor and approve our actions. This is simply evolution. Those of us that are “the fittest of the fit in evolutionary terms” are more likely to crave the ability to monitor friends and have friends affirm our actions in the form of likes and retweets. Historically, this was a trait that kept us alive. Today, it is a trait that keeps us glued to social media – with other possible consequences we are only beginning to understand.

This is a step towards understanding what social media is doing to our brains. If we can understand the reasons why we are drawn to social media, we can begin to understand the degree to which it is impacting our brains. It is important not to draw sweeping conclusions. This does not mean that entire generations are addicted to social media or do not understand how to carry on meaningful relationships in the real world. It does, however, lead me closer to the conclusion that social media platforms are exploiting our evolutionary behaviors to increase our usage.

Two Fundamental Concerns about Social Media

The bulk of my concerns about social media can be broken into two fundamental areas: its psychological impacts on us and the centralization of our data. Almost everything else (and most of what you’ll read about on this blog) are offshoots of these fundamental concerns. This is a brief summary of both of them.

Psychological Impacts

There are a lot of questions about what social media is doing to our brains, which researchers are only just beginning to explore. Is it behind the increase in teen depression and suicide rates? Does it lead to increased bullying? Does it lead to a decreased sense of self worth? Are we addicted to it? If so, why are we addicted to it? Is there an evolutionary component to our behavior on social media?

I think the answer to all of these questions is that we really don’t know yet. Researchers have established links between unhappiness and social media use, but we really don’t understand the extent to which social media impacts us. We are also still in early days of social media, so there is no way to understand the full extent of long-term psychological impacts of  social media.

Centralization of our data

This might seem like a two-parter, but it’s really two sides of the same coin. Due to network effects, the world of social media has always been destined to consolidate to a few platforms. These are Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Twitter, and Snapchat – at least in the US. Due to the concentration of where we congregate online, these firms now have outsized power, and are essentially monopolies. When a firm is a monopoly, it doesn’t have an incentive to fight back against abusive trolls or fake news.

It is also in the position to collect vast amount of data on its users, which is can then sell to the highest bidder. When we learn that a company is abusing our data, it might create a brief PR storm, but that will soon blow over. The truth is that social media users do not have the ability to choose an alternative provider who does not abuse their data.

Steven Johnson wrote an excellent piece in the New York Times in early 2018 about blockchain and the benefits of a decentralized internet. The (long) article is well worth a read. It speaks to the benefits of decentralization, verification, open protocols and the lack of an “owner”. Why bring up an article on blockchain in a blog about social media? Look at this quote:

The true believers behind blockchain platforms like Ethereum argue that a network of distributed trust is one of those advances in software architecture that will prove, in the long run, to have historic significance.

The Bitcoin bubble has become a distraction from the true significance of the blockchain. If we look past the speculative bubble, we can see the potential of a “network of distributed trust”. This could lead to a decentralized and democratized version of the internet we know today. This would prevent our identities from being housed in Facebook or Google’s walled gardens. We could have an identity that exists based on open protocols, and we can take it from platform to platform as we please. There would be penalties for abusing our data.

It is helpful to understand the two layers of the internet. The first is based on open protocols that were developed in the 1970s, which still exist today – email and web browsing still works on these. This layer is decentralized. The second layer of the internet are the platforms that we use to access the internet today. These are private companies such as Facebook or Twitter. This layer is private and highly centralized.

Johnson argues that keeping smartphones away from kids and government regulation are commendable, but will not cure all of societies ills. This belief – that there is no silver bullet to protect us from social media – is a fundamental reason for the existence of this blog.

Johnson paints a vision for a decentralized future with open protocols overtaking the highly lucrative private platforms that exist today. Blockchain, afterall, has shown us that it is possible for everyone to agree on the contents of a database without the database having an “owner”.

I hope he is right. But his vision requires the success of swashbuckling punk rockers that are driven purely by a mission to restore the internet to its original utopian vision. This would require everyone to turn a blind eye to the gobs of money that will be thrown at him to keep the internet closed.

Until then, the social media platforms we use will remain closed and highly centralized. Our data lives with these private companies, which earn their revenue by harvesting and selling our data. While some are perfectly comfortable with the sale of our personal data by fortune 500 companies, it is important to remember that these private companies are vulnerable to attacks, and our personal information can get into shadier hands.

This all leaves me thinking about a very prescient tweet that I saw once, which I would love to attribute to its author, but cannot remember:

The only businesses that refer to their customers as “users” are tech companies and drug dealers

This is what drives this blog. There are many questions about what social media is doing to us. Most of the efforts to understand social media have to do with monetizing our attention. How can businesses advertise to users as they spend time on these platforms? And how can the social media platforms monetize the time we spend using their technology? It’s fine that many smart people are dedicated to answering these questions – because if they weren’t, bad actors would fill that void.

However, the conversations about what social media does to our brains seems limited to fragmented academic studies. Discussions on social media’s centralization and its impact on society have become more mainstream recently, but do not seem to have impacted the fundamentals of how social media platforms operate.

Those of us that seek to understand what is happening to us as individuals and society as a whole will never come to a satisfying conclusion. We seem destined to only uncover more questions. Questions I am happy to continue asking.

 

Navigating the Dark Side of Social Media

A few years ago, Aziz Ansari made the excellent point on the Freakonomics podcast that the time he spends on social media could be spend enjoying great literature that has been cherished for centuries. I find myself agreeing with that point more and more. Every time I check Twitter, I may feed that dopamine craving of checking in with that is happening in the world, but I don’t get any real enlightenment or true satisfaction.

However, as I have taken steps to cut back on my own social media use, I have not found that it leads to a direct increase in my consumption of real culture. For one, I don’t exactly have the ability to whip out War & Peace for two minutes between meetings at work. I certainly waste time on social media, and should spend more time reading great books, but it isn’t an easy substitute. This is in part because of how social media has inserted itself into our lives to be ubiquitous, available with as few hurdles as possible.

I do consider myself to be moderately addicted to social media – currently my fix comes from Twitter. Part of this has to do with the world we live in today, with my craving for breaking news constantly being fed by one thing or another. But I was addicted to social media long before the 2016 election, so blaming the news cycle would be a cop out. I think often about the Radiolab episode, in which they discussed addiction, and how there is a school of thought people who are more prone to addiction are merely more highly evolved. The argument goes that we as humans evolved to respond to the pleasure centers of the brain, because it helped us avoid poisonous fruits. The pleasure center evolved to make sure we ate oranges and not poisonous berries. Unfortunately, this makes us susceptible to drugs that really trigger the pleasure center. Could social media be similar?

 


 

Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee wrote in USA Today that there are parallels to when humans first started forming cities. He makes the point that when we were spread out as hunters and gatherers, we’d come into contact with a few dozen other people a year. When we moved to cities, we’d see a few hundred a day. This created an environment in which diseases could flourish. Before cities, a disease would impact only a few people and then die off because there was no one else to infect. Once cities formed, it had the ability to spread exponentially.

The same is now true of bad ideas on social media. If I had a conspiracy in 1985 that I wanted to spread, my idea would probably not extend beyond my group of friends. But if I’m on Reddit, Twitter or Facebook – not only do I contact many more people in a day – but my ideas can be easily and effortlessly shared by everyone I reach. Exponential spread.

This puts us in dangerous territory. An incorrect narrative, doctored photo or video, or mistaken identity can spread like wildfire. This is especially true when it confirms a belief that someone holds. The old saying goes, it’s easier to fool someone that convince them they’ve been fooled.

Bad ideas and false narratives are only one negative side effect of social media. Typical symptoms of depression in teens rose 33% from 2010 to 2015, correlating strongly with the increase in usage of smartphones and social media. Getting “likes” on our photos and posts has replaced actual enjoyment of experiences for some. Our sense of self worth is now quantified in the number of likes our posts get, leaving our psyches desperately fragile.

Psychologists have also shown evidence that we are really addicted to social media. Research has shown that receiving a text or Tweet can light up the same area of the brain as heroin or cocaine. This is why I am constantly checking Twitter. Not for real enjoyment. For that hit of dopamine.

 


 

A ray of light emerges from Reynolds’ cities metaphor. He shows us a path forward. We fought back against the diseases that spread with cities by adapting. We developed better nutrition, medicine and public services. There is no questioning that human migration to cities brought about a plethora of scientific and societal advances that would have been impossible otherwise. Likewise, there can be no denying that social media has brought with it advances as well. Disenfranchised can speak out, artists have new platforms to share their work, and sometimes it can be nice to see a picture of an old friend you haven’t talked to in a while.

The honest truth is that there is no silver bullet coming to help us. No app, no startup, no product, or any kind of technology-driven solution is going to let us enjoy the benefits of social media while offering us compete protection from all of its dangers. If you are like me, and believe we need help navigating social media, this is concerning. I don’t think we need to cut out social media altogether – it is clearly here to stay – but we need to understand how to manage it in our lives.

What needs to happen is we need to evolve, as both individuals and society.

I have taken measures to cut down on my own social media use. I deleted Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare from my phone. I still don’t have stacks of classic American literature sitting around my house. I have made a conscious effort to read more, but there wasn’t a 1:1 exchange for a minute spent on social media replaced with a minute of reading a book. It just doesn’t work like that. Social media has made itself extremely ubiquitous in our lives in a way that a book – or even a newspaper – article can’t replicate.

The societal evolution also seem to be off to a slow start. It was made abundantly clear recently that the United States Congress is in way over its head with regards to social media. The Supreme Court refused to even think about the technical and data complexities of gerrymandering when they realized how smart the analytics people were by describing the gerrymandering methods as sociological gobbledygook. Essentially letting the public know that if an issue requires any level of technical or statistical depth, the Supreme Court is not going to step in, because they don’t get it.

More simply put – this is going to be a battle and it is up to us as individuals to fight that battle. On the other end of our phones and computer screens are engineers, data scientist and sociologists that do everything in their power to make their product as sticky as possible. There may be an evolutionary angle here. There is a new predator among us, praying on our attention and capacity to learn and become productive members of society. Some will certainly adapt and survive – thrive even. My hope is that society can make sure to limit the number of us that don’t to as few as possible.