We all spend too much time on social media. Every time I look at my screen time, I squirm in my seat, throw my phone on the floor, delete all my social media, only to re-download it all again just two hours later.
Almost every social media user has experienced something similar in their time online, yet we always seem to be drawn back in.
This is not done by default but by design. In other words, social media companies design their platforms to create and subsequently feed addiction.
The notion of ‘social media addiction’ is something that has been bought to the fore by former Google employee, Tristan Harris, who claims that social media apps act as a substitute for ‘Big Tobacco for our brains’.
Harris was a key figure behind the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’, which presented a compelling case against the recent expansion of social media and smartphone technology.
During an interview with Fox News, Harris argued that the smartphone is “the most deep and subtle issue of our time … I believe it’s actually an existential threat to democracy”.
”Three billion people have a brain implant that’s a remotely controlled brain, because – especially in the coronavirus times – we are relying on these things to make sense of what’s reality out there in the world,” Harris said.
‘They have become the fabric for our sense-making and the fabric of our choice-making, the fabric of how children develop.”
Harris is not wrong – I have been on Twitter since May 2013. This means that Twitter has been shaping my beliefs for over eight years, despite being just 21 years of age.
A key driver behind the sustenance of these platforms is interaction: likes, retweets, comments, direct messages – all of which usually occur when one user agrees with another.
The resulting dopamine release that is proven to occur following such interactions means that people naturally continue to post thoughts that will likely be interacted with.
As a result, independent thought is something that is seemingly lacking from social media these days, especially in relation to politics.
Companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram all use complex algorithms to measure your preferences: what you like, what you do not, what you linger on for one second more, or one second less. This data not only informs your timelines but is packaged and sold to the highest bidder.
We are all aware of how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica were able to influence the 2016 Brexit and US Presidential elections, respectively – social media companies not only have the power to influence individuals but their political beliefs and by extension, political outcomes.
When are we going to draw the line? If social media companies can control what political opinions you do and do not see, it is entirely feasible that they can swing elections results one way or another.
Twitter has also shown form with their recent ban of former US President Donald Trump. Regardless of his beliefs, should Twitter really act as the final arbiter of what he can and cannot say online?
The only next logical step is government intervention; following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook promised change. Since then, it has promised more change – what’s changed? Nothing.
Social media companies have shown time and time again that they cannot be trusted to self-regulate. Our only hope of change lies within real, meaningful legislation that removes social companies from the secret positions of power they have put themselves in.
An easy counter-argument would be: if you do not like it, just delete your account.
This is simply not realistic for the people of today or the children of tomorrow. Twitter and other forms of social media platforms, like it or not, have become essential forms of communication for people across the globe.
Social isolation, especially among children, is at an all-time high due to the restrictive implications of the COVID-19 pandemic – the last thing that is needed is the total removal of forms of communication.
Instead, we need to make sure that social media companies are held accountable for their actions and stripped of their ability to orchestrate our socio-political futures on a mass scale.