This Monday, October 4, Facebook experienced what Stephen Colbert called the work of “a just God,” when after a whistleblower denounced the company’s lack of transparency, its servers crashed for six consecutive hours.
As The New York Times explained, the outage disrupted the digital lives of small business owners, politicians, aid workers, and others. What the social media blackout exposed, however, was the extent to which Facebook controls our lives — at least from one point of view.
“In Mexico, politicians were cut off from their constituents. In Turkey, shopkeepers couldn’t sell their wares,” the Times explained, “And in Colombia, a nonprofit organization that uses WhatsApp to connect victims of gender-based violence to lifesaving services found its work impaired.”
Monday’s Facebook outage globally demonstrated our dependence on the company’s services. Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger have become the fundamental tools for communication, healthcare, education, and, above all, millions of users’ daily serotonin dose.
An addiction that continues to go unnoticed
The impact of social networks on our daily lives has more than one level. These platforms interconnect us, allow the dissemination of information, the organization of civil individuals, and the sale of your favorite products. However, the effect they have on our brains is much more intricate.
A University of Pennsylvania study determined the extent of the so-called “fear of missing out” (FOMO) and found that users who cut back on social media felt less depressed and lonely than people who had no social media boundaries.
Psychologist Melissa Hunt led the study. She explained, “‘Using less social media than you normally would lead to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study.'”
Hunt suggests that the reason for feeling depressed after spending too much time on social media comes down to comparison. Seeing someone else’s life curated online makes it easy to look at their perfect photos and think their life is better than yours.
And the direct link between social media and our brain chemistry is not a myth.
Neuroscientists are studying the effects of social networking on the brain and finding that positive interactions (such as someone liking your tweet) trigger the same kind of chemical reaction that gambling and recreational drugs do.
According to a paper by Harvard University researcher Trevor Haynes, when you receive a social media notification, your brain sends a chemical messenger called dopamine down a reward pathway, making you feel good. Dopamine is associated with food, exercise, love, sex, gambling, drugs, and now, social media. Psychologist B.F. Skinner first described it in the 1930s. When rewards are delivered randomly (as in a slot machine or a positive interaction on social networks), and checking out the reward is easy, the dopamine-triggering behavior becomes a habit.
Like a gambling or substance addiction, social media addiction involves broken reward pathways in our brain. Social networks provide immediate rewards — in the form of attention from your network — in exchange for minimal effort via a quick thumb tap. Therefore, the brain rewires itself, making you crave likes, retweets, emoji claps, etc. According to TED, 5 to 10 percent of Internet users are psychologically addicted and cannot control their online time. The brain scans of social network addicts are similar to those of drug-addicted brains: There is a clear shift in brain regions that control emotions, attention, and decision-making.
Facebook knows this
Former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen appeared on “60 Minutes” last Sunday night to take on her role as whistleblower, denouncing with documents in hand the social media giant’s lack of transparency regarding information.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Haugen assured that Facebook has misled investors about the size of its audience, has failed to take action against extremism, hate speech, human trafficking, and ethnic violence in its applications, including Instagram.
Previously, the Wall Street Journal reported on how drug and human traffickers use the platform and how Instagram creates a feedback loop that harms the mental health of American children, especially girls.
However, according to Haugen, Facebook not only knows this to be true but has refused to do anything about it.
Haugen gave an example that if a new user were to sign up and follow Donald Trump, the platform’s algorithm would soon throw QAnon conspiracy theories at them.
Similarly, according to a report by CNN Business, Instagram has consistently promoted pages that glorify eating disorders on teenage accounts.
The platform has promoted accounts with names like “I have to be thin,” “Eternally starved,” or “I want to be perfect” through its algorithms, violating its rules against promoting extreme dieting and dangerous content to the audience.
Mark Zuckerberg back in the dock
In the face of Haugen’s revelations, and in the wake of new research showing data manipulation at Facebook, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey on Monday demanded answers from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
Markey cited research conducted by the Campaign for Accountability’s Tech Transparency Project, that as recently as last month, Facebook allowed advertisers to target teen users as young as 13 with “inappropriate and dangerous content, including advertisements promoting ‘pill abuse, alcoholic beverages, anorexia, smoking, dating services, and gambling.'”
Markey added: “These findings cast serious doubt on Facebook’s compliance with promises your employees have publicly made, and they are particularly concerning in light of other recent reports, which suggest that Facebook has direct knowledge that its platforms are harmful to young people.”
Similarly, this Tuesday, Haugen will testify at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on the impact of Facebook and Instagram on young users.
Haugen told “60 Minutes” that, “Facebook’s own research says, as these young women begin to consume this — this eating disorder content, they get more and more depressed. And it actually makes them use the app more.”
And while for many the Solomonic solution lies in putting an end to Facebook, this is not the way out for Haugen.
“If people just hate Facebook more because of what I’ve done, then I’ve failed,” she told the Wall Street Journal. “I believe in truth and reconciliation — we need to admit reality. The first step of that is documentation.”