Something strange is happening in the world of social media. It is starting to feel like we are all part of a grand neuroscience experiment of Pavlovian nature. Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) refers to learning procedure in which a biologically potent stimulus (e.g. food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (e.g. a bell). It also refers to the learning process that results from this pairing, through which the neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response (e.g. salivation) that is usually similar to the one elicited by the potent stimulus.
Your smartphone buzzes. You can’t just leave it because the curiosity is just too great. Was it an email for me? A text? Did I get a Facebook notification? Or just a phantom vibration? You grab it out of your pocket without hesitation and check the alert.
Pavlov paired food with a bell; we seem to be pairing our human connection with our phone. We may not salivate at each alert, but our brain is certainly responding.
The digital world has become a crowded place. We have one piece of hardware that has essentially become the portal for all our news, communication, entertainment, and utilities. Making up these distribution channels are millions of companies producing the application, content and software.
Their survival is based on their ability to keep us, the users, engaged as often as they can and for as long as they can. So the need for ways to measure “real” online engagement has never been more urgent. To effectively reach consumers in today’s fragmented media landscape, advertisers and publishers need a deeper understanding of which content resonates when, and on what device. Advancements in online advertising analytics can now show if an ad was actually viewed and this capability is pushing many advertisers, publishers and agencies to think beyond clicks and impressions.
The competition is fierce because if your attention is focused on SnapChat’s application, it is not focused on the latest content being produced by YouTube. The classic marketing messages such as “we are the most convenient,” or “we provide the most value for your money,” don’t seem to work anymore. Therefore, these companies have researched much deeper into our neural connections in order to manipulate them to affect our behaviour towards their products and services. This research has brought about innovations such as autoplay, endless scroll, reverse chronological timelines, reciprocity, push notifications and many more.
If you’re an app, how do you keep people hooked? You do what Pavlov did, you provide an intermittent reward, or the promise of a reward, such as push notifications, or a bell when you recieve a message. The average person checks their phone 150 times a day. Think about why we do this? Are we making 150 conscious choices? (You can read more on this in Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked”). Tristan Harris equates it to playing a slot machine, and this is coming from a designer at Google that was responsible for many of them. Here is his view of it:
- When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
- When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
- When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
- When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
- When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.
The psychologist Larry Rosen, talks about the fear of missing out. “We also study a particular type of anxiety connected to feeling a need to constantly check in, and feeling anxious if you can’t do so as often as you like. It is similar to the concept known as FOMO—fear of missing out—but it is not really a fear. Physiologically it looks more like a heightened level of “technological anxiety” that continues to rise until you check in with whatever is making you feel that way, and will abate only to start to rise again and again.”
So, if these are the tools and the elicited reactions, then how is it truly affecting us? The best way to find out is to remove the stimulus (smartphone). What happens to us if we are restricted from checking our smartphones? What happens when our addiction to pulling the slot machine lever is taken away?
Numerous studies have confirmed that people tend to undergo a kind of withdrawal: A research study from Swansea University found that people experienced the psychological symptoms of withdrawal when they stopped using social media (this went for all internet use, not just social media). It tends to triggers more sadness and less well-being. The more we use social media, the less happy we seem to be.
One study conducted in 2013 found that Facebook use was linked to both less moment-to-moment happiness and less life satisfaction—the more people used Facebook in a day, the more these two variables dropped off.
A study from 2014 found that social media use is linked to greater feelings of social isolation. The team looked at how much people used 11 social media sites, including Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, Vine, Snapchat and Reddit, and correlated this with their “perceived social isolation.” The results indicated that the more time people spent on these sites, the more socially isolated they perceived themselves to be. Perceived social isolation is one of the worst things for us, mentally and physically.
Research found that an eighth-grader’s risk for depression jumps 27% when he or she frequently uses social media. Kids who use their phones for at least three hours a day are much more likely to be suicidal. And recent research has found the teen suicide rate in the US now eclipses the homicide rate, with smartphones believed to be the driving force.
One of the main benefits believed to have arisen our of social media is its “social” aspect. Our ability to be able to connect with others far and wide. However, it has been discovered that more friends on social media doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more social. A study from 2016, by R. M. Dunbar, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford, found that more friends on social media doesn’t necessarily mean you have a better social life—there seems to be a cap on the number of friends a person’s brain can handle, and it takes actual social interaction (not virtual) to keep up these friendships. So feeling like you’re being social by being on Facebook doesn’t work. Loneliness is linked to a myriad of health and mental health problems (including early death), getting real social support is important. Virtual friendship time has not been seen to have the therapeutic effect as time with real friends.
How can we protect ourselves and limit the effects?
Although not everything connected with social media is detrimental there should be care in limiting the destructive side effects that it can cause. But what are the options at our disposal to achieving this? We can’t expect it to come from the tech companies as that would equate to shooting themselves in the foot. Their goal is to gain users not lose them. We could turn to the government to regulate the use, however, we are already so regulated in so many areas that dealing with something so widespread as the internet and social media would likely see the same effects that they saw during the prohibition period. That didn’t work out so well. Therefore, the onus is placed on the individual or the family. This takes extremely tough discipline when you are up against an industry that is researching your inner core and how better to manipulate it.
Interviews with Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and other tech elites have consistently revealed that Silicon Valley parents are strict about technology use. In 2007, Gates, the former CEO of Microsoft, implemented a cap on screen time when his daughter started developing an unhealthy attachment to a video game. He also didn’t let his kids get cell phones until they turned 14. Steve Jobs, who was the CEO of Apple until his death in 2012, revealed in a 2011 New York Times interview that he prohibited his kids from using the newly-released iPad. “We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”
The psychologist Larry Rosen suggest the following:
- Try to slowly wean yourself off the need to respond automatically to alerts and notifications, particularly while you are working on any task that requires concentration and attention. This can be done by turning off notifications, shutting all browser tabs, putting the phone on silent for a specified amount of time, or even just turning the phone off.
- Instead of checking your messages when you receive alerts, check them on a time schedule. Alert friends, family and colleagues that you are going on a 30-minute plan (or whatever suits you), only checking messages every 30 minutes.
- Do not work with technology for more than about 90 minutes at a time. Take short 10-minute breaks and do something that doesn’t use technology to calm and reset your brain. Walking in nature works. So does playing a musical instrument, meditating, exercising, listening to music, and taking a hot bath or shower. You know implicitly what calms your brain.
- Using technology at night ruins your sleep and the important brain processes that happen while you rest. Remove your phone and other devices that are used close to your face for at least one hour prior to attempting to sleep.
Additionally, Tristan Harris, from a movement he started by the name “Time Well Spent” suggest making the following changes:
- Allow notifications from people, not machines
Most notifications are from machines, not actual people. They keep our phones vibrating to lure us back into apps we don’t really need to be in. Visit Settings > Notifications and turn off all notifications except those from real people– apps like WhatsApp, FB Messenger or Messages.
- Keep the tools, put mindless choices at a distance.
Limit your first page of apps to just tools– things you use for in-and-out tasks like Maps, Camera, Calendar, Notes, or Lyft. Move the rest of your apps off the first page and into folders.
Launch other apps by typing
Swipe down and type the app you want to open instead of leaving bad habits on the home screen. Typing takes just enough effort to pause and ask, “do I really want to do this?”
On Android you can use the Search box on your home screen.
iOS: For best results, turn off Siri Suggestions (Settings > Siri & Search > Siri Suggestions to off)
- Charge your device outside the bedroom
Get a separate alarm clock in your bedroom, and charge your phone in another room (or on the other side of the room). This way, you can wake up without getting sucked into your phone before you even get out of bed.
The main thing to remember is that nobody is making us respond so quickly, or respond at all to alerts and notifications. Nobody is enslaved to technology. If you practice waiting and not checking your alerts you will find that the anxiety and mental need to check in will abate with time, and then you will be in control of your technology rather than your technology controlling you.
As we explained in our article “The Illusion of Understanding,” if you think that you understand the workings of social media and how it affects you, you probably don’t.