Social media has undoubtedly brought the world together since its inception, but the true impact it's having on the human psyche is untold.
“We are trapped in an involuntary merger of personal necessity and economic extraction, as the same channels that we rely upon for daily logistics, social interaction, work, education, healthcare, access to products and services, and much more, now double as supply chain operations for surveillance capitalism’s surplus flows.”Shoshana Zuboff, Author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism
Life has always been bewildering and labyrinthine. It’s not a 21st-century phenomenon.
Humans’ minds and bodies have always had to meander through societal shifts, establishment whims and internal exasperations. Yet the technological revolution that we currently find ourselves within the midsts of has brought with it a torrent of flummoxing and unnatural complications. Less than 15 years into the social media age, we’re already seeing a backlash.
Though our lives have become more and more intertwined with technology, a steady shift in the desire to appear detached from the online world is taking place as people become more “motivated by seeking new experiences and engaging more in self-examination”. This is what Robert McCrae and Paul Costa coined ‘Openness to experience’, one of the traits in the Five Factor Personality Trait Model.
However, though the positives of self-awareness and mindfulness are numerous, the opening of the mind to the world and to the reality of life can be a daunting task. For those that have lived in darkness and apathy from young, the introduction of new-age trepanning can lead to ever more lonely, confusing avenues.
Emotional accessibility isn’t something everyone’s born with. British people are well known for their inherent reservation, and the Christian belief system that guides the western world works only to exacerbate this trait. The way mindfulness works isn’t always compatible with western society, especially in a generation where social media is ripe.
Indeed, as the tentacles sprouting from the significant torso of social media’s body continue to take an ever-tighter grip of society, the heart of the ‘Openness to experience’ theory starts to manifest an uncomfortable contradiction. Not only are our relationships, our culture, and the media cycle being shaped by this behemoth, but so is our worldview. Self-examination and the lust for new experiences is increasingly being observed through the lens of social media.
The ‘Openness to experience’ trait is one that is proven to be subject to corruption through vanity. Traditional media has long had this impact on a small percentage of the population, but with the rise of social media, mini celebrities have been made of us all. And with every post we are all performing.
Vanity eats away at the true meaning of openness. How much this is affecting our psyche is yet to be proven, though the rise of the influencer — particularly the lifestyle and travel blogger — and the clamber of others to reach this zenith, is striking. The vacation for inner peace and cultural experience wanes, while the vacation for dopamine-inducing-likes grows.
Addiction and retention
Many studies have been conducted down the years equating personality traits to social media use and addiction. In the 2016 paper, Big five-personality trait and Internet addiction, Kayik et al reported that all personality dimensions had a significant effect on Internet addiction — individuals who were less open to experience, agreeable, extraverted, conscientious, and more neurotic reported higher levels of internet addiction. Marino et al in 2016 also found that being less open to experience, less emotionally stable, and less conscientious is associated with Facebook addiction. Ershad and Aghajani discovered in 2017 that similar personality constructs are associated with Instagram addiction too.
Openness is an aspired trait. It helps us to stand out as something different, it helps us to be noticed, and it helps us to show the world that we are interesting. Yet the fact that those who are less open to experience are more susceptible to social media addiction creates an unhealthy contradiction, one that spawns a desire to lust after something which inherently doesn’t feed the soul.
The way social media gobbles up everyone in its path only intensifies the problem. Those who gain nothing but small dopamine hits get taken hostage, doing things that they don’t ultimately enjoy for likes, while the yearning to compare one’s self to peers, acquaintances, and celebrities lingers on in the background.
Speaking to the Guardian in 2019, Alexandra Mondalek, a New York fashion reporter said, “I was putting too much weight into who was viewing my Instagram. I would worry about how a post was performing instead of making important calls. I felt a certain pressure to make a brand of myself, and there was so much anxiety in that.”
It’s not something one can easily leave behind either. Social media apps have been intentionally designed, in the same way as cocaine and heroin, to alter the way the neurotransmitters operate within the brain.
Infinite scroll, a feature on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, allows us to endlessly swipe down without ever getting to the bottom of the page: created to enhance our addiction and allow no time for our brains to catch up with our impulses.
The ‘like’ system has been equated by teenagers to winning money or eating chocolate, such is the rush of dopamine.
“A region [of the brain] that was especially active is a part of the striatum called the nucleus accumbens, which is part of the brain’s reward circuitry. This reward circuitry is thought to be particularly sensitive during adolescence.”Taken from The Power of the Like in Adolescence: Effects of Peer Influence on Neural and Behavioral Responses to Social Media [link]
When Facebook’s founding president publicly stated in 2018 that the company “set out to consume as much time as possible” and was “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology” it made headlines worldwide, though 18 months on, governments and legislators have made no concerted effort to modify social media platforms. Targeted advertising has received plenty of flak, though the day to day whirring behind the machines of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube have received little introspection.
A pandemic left in its wake
Despite the inaction, there is little doubt that social media is playing havoc with our mental health. Melissa Hunt’s study from 2018, titled No More FOMO, found that people who limited their social media use to 30 minutes a day felt significantly better after a three-week period, reporting reduced depression and loneliness. Jacqueline Hogue and Jennifer Mills’ 2018 study found that “young women who were asked to interact with a post of someone whom they perceived as more attractive felt worse about themselves afterwards”. And And Mai-Ly N. Steers’ study from 2018 found that the “link between social media and depression was largely mediated by the social comparison factor”.
Though it undoubtedly connects the world, the dominant and all-conquering nature of social media has allowed the behemoths of the industry to completely overlook human welfare.
It’s unlikely that Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook with ill-intentions, yet his creation has brought with it a world of pain, spinning a whole generation into a full-blown identity crisis. Meanwhile, his workforce, inevitably in this late-capitalist world, have used this pain and bewilderment to their advantage for monetary gain.
The openness with which many use social media has left untold vulnerable. Not just to surveillance capitalism, or even bullying, but to themselves too.
As we all wrestle to find out who we really are, in times of trouble or times of tranquility, the large, onlooking eye of social media continues to loom above us with unrelenting judgement.
The once dark avenues that were wrongly navigated towards are now constantly alight.
There’s no room for error, individualism.
For us, likes are happiness. For them, time is money.
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