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Our Fast Food Social Media Diet

If you want to become a miserable partisan who spends more time being angry at people you have never met than enjoying the company of friends, neighbors, and loved ones, then Twitter is the place for you. Social media platforms can be useful. I have made a number of personal and professional contacts on Twitter. And, if calibrated correctly, it offers valuable exposure to a wide range of ideas. But Twitter is also, as the cool kids say, a dumpster fire. It is too frequently an arena in which professional adults throw emotional and bigoted tantrums that most parents would not tolerate from very young children. And Twitter is certainly not the only platform for this kind of behavior. The more I learn about Facebook as a company, the more I dislike it. I deactivated my account. Intoxicated by feelings of moral righteousness, we yell past one another while our tech overlords busy themselves with hacking the human brain and annihilating any trace of cognitive freedom.

It isn’t hard to get people to agree that social media is often bad for our wellbeing, distorts our views about those with different beliefs, and serves as a poor substitute for face-to-face social experiences. Yet, we can’t seem to get enough of it. Around 70 percent of American adults (90 percent of young adults) use at least one social media platform and the majority of users are on social media every day. The numbers are similar or even higher in other nations such as Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. A recent survey from Common Sense Media found that more than two-thirds of American teens (up from around 50 percent six years ago) would rather interact with their friends online than face-to-face. According to Pew Research Center, 26 percent of American adults are online almost constantly. This number shoots up to 36 percent when just looking at Americans aged 30 to 49, and 39 percent for Americans aged 18 to 29. Pew also finds that 54 percent of teens worry that they spend too much time on their phones, and 51 percent report that their parents are sometimes or often distracted by their phones when they are trying to talk to them.

Why are we so drawn to social media when we seem to intuitively understand it isn’t particularly healthy and can be a barrier to a good life offline? A useful way to address this question is to view social media as similar to fast food. Why is fast food such a popular way to meet caloric needs? For one, it is convenient for modern life. People know that home cooked meals tend to be healthier but it takes time and energy to prepare them. In our hectic lives, it is much easier to hit the drive-thru or order take-out than to cook a meal from scratch at home. Likewise, it is often easier to interact with others on social media than to participate in face-to-face social activities.

In addition, like convenience food companies, the social media industry has seduced us by concocting a product that takes advantage of characteristics and inclinations that we possess because they helped our ancestors survive and reproduce. In the case of caloric needs, our brains orient us toward seeking lots of calories, fats, and sugars. In the case of social needs, our brains orient us toward vigilantly monitoring the social world and maintaining good relational and moral standing within our close networks and broader tribes. This modern social diet, however, undermines healthy socializing and contributes to growing social problems of loneliness, social disengagement, and tribal conflict just as a fast or junk food diet undermines healthy eating and contributes to a range of health problems.

Making matters worse, social disconnection may make the modern social diet all the more enticing. To those who feel isolated, rejected, or lonely, social media offers an opportunity to engage in what researchers call social snacking—seeking social gratification in passive or indirect ways that do not involve real social interaction. Online social snacking behaviors such as scrolling through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram feeds are motivated by, but do not fulfill, belongingness needs. Indeed, researchers have found a positive association between loneliness and Facebook use,1 and that passive Facebook use in particular decreases wellbeing.2 Other studies similarly find that the more time adolescents spend using electronic devices, and the less time they are engaged in non-screen related activities, the lower their wellbeing.3 Experimental research further shows that the presence of a cellphone decreases the enjoyment of face-to-face interactions.4 Platforms like Twitter also provide a place for people to advertize virtue and tribal allegiance by joining attacks against ideological foes or anyone perceived as a heretic. But such behavior is not a recipe for healthy, stable, and enduring social ties and leaves people vulnerable to becoming the target of such attacks themselves.

It is worth taking a step back and considering just how dramatically technology is changing how we engage the social world. I’m writing this column from a hotel room in Chicago. To get here from my home in North Dakota required nearly zero human interaction. I booked my flight online and received my boarding pass from a computer. The only real social encounter I experienced at the airport was thanks to the interactive security theatre provided by the TSA. On the plane, like nearly everyone else, I had my own digital entertainment cued up. Why have a conversation with the random lady next to me when I can listen to Sam Harris have an undoubtedly more interesting conversation with his latest guest?

When I arrived in Chicago, the Uber app was all I needed to make my way to the hotel. I’m sure I could have chatted with the driver but I was too immersed in that so-long-it-should-have-been-an-OpEd Twitter thread that was going to finally fully reveal to the world the total hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy of the Left. Or was it the Right? Once I arrived at the hotel, after a brief check in with the clerk (self-check-in kiosks will probably be replacing them soon), I went to my room and used my phone to scout out nearby restaurants. No need to directly ask a person about a good place to eat and how to get there when I can so efficiently access that information using the internet. It is still within our power to explore a city without our digital assistants, but increasingly few of us do so. Why experience uncertainty and “waste time” when the Google gods can plot our path?

Many will be quick to correctly point out that my anecdote doesn’t involve lost meaningful social encounters. Brief interactions with strangers are not exactly the ingredients of a rich social life. In fact, one could argue that by making many aspects of our lives more efficient, technology actually gives us more freedom to focus on real relationships. And yet, by many metrics, people today are less socially connected to their family, neighbors, and community than people of past generations.

In addition, seemingly superficial face-to-face social encounters may have unappreciated social value, and increasingly interacting with machines instead of people may have real social costs; studies find that brief interactions with strangers can benefit wellbeing. What we often think of as trivial interpersonal encounters may also help developing minds learn how people work and help the rest of us keep our social skills sharp. Just like cooking is a skill that takes practice, so does socializing; our modern fast food social diet may reduce people’s ability to navigate the real social world. Perhaps people are less tolerant of those who have different views because they can easily go online and avoid or mock them.

Science fiction movies often feature human-like robots who just aren’t quite human enough. They can’t figure out how to successfully interact with others. Sometimes they lack empathy or moral concern, making them appear indifferent and even hostile towards people. Sometimes they are simply socially awkward, unable to correctly or quickly assess a social situation and respond with the appropriate emotions or words. The common narrative is that no matter how much they look and sound like us, robots aren’t and will never be like us—they will always lack a social soul. In real life, robotic engineers are working to build robots that mimic human sociality, for our benefit, of course. People are more likely to have positive feelings towards and thus want to buy or use robots if they display the social characteristics we find naturally appealing. In this age of omnipresent social media, our greatest challenge may be figuring out how to take advantage of the benefits of the technology that can connect us to each other without suffering serious social costs. If we don’t figure this out, in the future, we might not be asking how we can make robots more like us, but how we became more like them, or worse.

 

Clay Routledge is a Quillette columnist and professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Scientific American. You can follow him on Twitter @clayroutledge 

References:

1 Hayeon, S. et al., (2014) Does Facebook make you lonely? A meta-analysis. Computers in Human Behavior, 36, 446-452.
2 Verduyn, P. et al., (2015). Passive Facebook usage undermines affective wellbeing: Experimental and longitudinal evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144, 480-488.
3 Twenge, J. M., Martin, G. N., & Campbell, W. K. (2018). Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. Emotion, 18, 765-780.
4 Dwyer, R. Kushlev, K. & Dunn E. (2018). Smartphone use undermines enjoyment of face-to-face social interactions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 78, 233-239. 

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30 Comments

  1. Circuses and Bread says

    I wonder if the tribalism inherent to politics is somewhat driving the trend. Much easier to virtue signal and blame the “them” for your problems than to engage others who might not agree with you to the nth degree.

    Funny thing though is that when you engage people and make it clear that you think politics and those who practice it suck, it’s a very interesting reaction. The body language is suddenly much more relaxed. People smile and actually seem to enjoy talking. Strange. Maybe they’re using that device as a sort of defensive tool because they’re intimidated ?

    And on that note, I’m taking the authors advice getting off my phone. Anti politics will survive till tomorrow.

    • Morgan says

      Social Media a new communication platform, like TV once was, and radio before, and what the industrial revolution made of publishing, and what the printing press brought about once. Each gave up the hiccups, jolting us some, yet eventually assimilated.

      It could be argued that each also created new catalysts of sociopolitical-driven destruction in the form of massive wars and deathly efficient oppressive regimes. Perhaps. But it can also be argued that each contributed to the also ever progression of everyone’s humanity. We are all better off.

      • Social media is a young phenomenon, so how humans adapt over time will be instructive, just as those with more money tend to shy away from fast food and even commercial TV.
        In the real world, competition exists and resources are limited; those who get stuck in addictive drugs or social media hell will be the losers.

      • Stoic Realist says

        There is a difference to keep in mind. Unlike TV, radio, and the printing press social media not only strives to be addictive but the platforms use all of the latest knowledge about how our brains work to maximize the addictive element. None of the other platforms were supported by the advanced knowledge of neuroscience that we have in the modern world and none of them were so easily and rapidly adaptable to that knowledge. Throw in the addition of big data and data modeling to hone in on precisely what works to keep people glued to the platform and social media starts to become more of an electronic drug than a platform for healthy social interaction.

        • Ishan S says

          Largely agree but also disagree with you. Though the convenience and instant gratification provided by social media play a large function in it’s addictive nature, all the other platforms like TV and Press have gravitated towards the Internet as a whole to exploit our base instincts and hack our biases and prejudices for their benefit. Think click-bait articles, vapid and anodyne “Reality” shows on OTT platforms, activism masquerding as journalism, etc. It’s critical that we remain informed about our choices and retain the ability to call out bullshit when we see it.

    • I think so. I remember hearing an interview with Jared DIamond. Social media does not permit us to see the microexpressions (NOT microaggressions!) of the other person. In addition, to get attention you must be hyperbolic. The more hyperbolic the more you get noticed.

      We need more face to face conversations not social media firebombing. While I have not read it yet, The Coddling of the American Mind, I think part of the rise in teenage suicides is due to social media. Social media mobbing, young girls taking selfies and not getting enough approval or “friends” who call them fat etc.

  2. Daniel says

    Isn’t there another option (than checking out), though? What about being “in the world but not of it”–a moral light in a dark place?

    Maybe, like drinking alcohol or throwing parties for tax collectors and prostitutes, it’s not something everyone can do.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      @ Daniel

      There are some people who think that it makes sense to be involved in social media, and there are also some people who think it makes sense to be involved in politics. They think that we shouldn’t abandon the medium in question because we might somehow and in some way make a difference.

      One thing I think you should look at it is the underlying objective of the medium and ask whether that fits with your morals or worldview. Do you really want what it’s selling? For social media the end objective isn’t “great conversations.” Its to generate personal data for the social media company to sell for marketing purposes, or worse. For politics the end objective isn’t the “fair” selection of leaders or societal betterment. The end objective is the accumulation, use, and abuse of power as well as social control. If the end objectives of social media and politics are OK with you then what can I say? Good luck. If however the end objectives are not something you see as desirable, then you might want to avoid them.

      There is always this temptation to think that I’M going to be the one that wins despite being able to intuitively recognize that you aren’t likely to. This is what keeps the gambling industry going. If you look, there are examples of gamblers who have won over time. But on average and over time, the casino always wins.

      • Ishan S says

        @Circuses and Bread
        Thank you for the fantastic insight. I personally believe that asserting your individual choice is salient to having an edifying conversation and intellectual stimulation on social media. I’m only up on Twitter and have come to realize: you follow the wrong people on Twitter and everyday seems like we’re on the brink of a riot or all out racial/ethnic cleansing; follow the right people who make you think and take personal responsibility for yourself like Ed Latimore, AJA Cortes, Naval Ramikant, etc. and it’s invaluable.

        • Circuses and Bread says

          @Ishan S

          You’re welcome and Thanks for the nice compliment.

          I could never get comfortable with twitter, and deleted my account after a short time. I didn’t like being a product. And there is a real problem with just toxic levels of tribalism. People tend to self segregate into tribes already and twitter just seems to exacerbate it. The tribalism probably even works for a large percentage of their users. But it doesn’t work for some who really want to have a conversation and maybe even learn something new. Your post indicates that there are some good voices over there in spite of it. Thanks for the tip.

    • @ Daniel
      Wow, last night I just about threw in the towel on Facebook. I was ready flame the world and clear my account for good. When someone lights an bag of %$#& on fire and runs just to look back to watch enraged people engorge themselves with a platitude stew of invective’s and ignorance it makes me hate what we’ve become. Facebook sucks…

      But then, my son-in-law posts a pic of my new granddaughter and I melt.

  3. There is a deep discussion to be had here. I’ve been aware for some time that for the really avid social media users, their own personal experience feels unreal to them. Hence their propensity to “over-share”. They over-share because they have a severely diminished sense of their own individual reality. What they experience themselves is not real until it is experienced – and ‘validated’ – by others. For the same reason, they over-consume, and live each other’s lives.

    Gone is the individualism of the West.

    • Ishan S says

      @breathnumber ‘They over-share because they have a severely diminished sense of their own individual reality.’ You’ve perfectly captured the problem my friend. This is exactly the thought that was runnning through my mind for so long and you have put it into words. It reminds me of the final dialogue from “Ingrid Goes West”, one of the truly brilliant films to come out in recent times, “What’s the point of living if we can’t share ?”

  4. Interesting article. Somewhat pretentious through.

    Mid-50’s, and decided to’join’ the internet about 25yrs ago. I don’t mean e-mail, but the’mob’…
    I thought that fax was awesome!

    I see this as a war.

    Hands down, the attack and defense of western culture.

  5. Bernard Hill says

    …wouldn’t it be nice if we could easily share this, and other articles on Quillette, WITHOUT ONLY BEING ABLE TO DO SO VIA FBOOK OR TWEET?

    • You could send an email or text message, or even by voice if you describe the story/headline as they can then find it easily via search engines or by browsing.
      If you only communicate indirectly through large, for-profit corporations, then you have chosen impersonal, ad-sponsored systems to communicate.

  6. Robin Whittle says

    “Real” social interaction is not a term which can be assumed to mean face-to-face or any other particular modality.

    Facebook and Twitter users are interacting socially. It is real. So is the social interaction of writing a letter longhand and posting it to someone. These modes are not face-to-face, but they are perfectly real.

    The various modalities have advantages and disadvantages, which should be well understood.

    I totally agree about the value and pleasure of even the briefest conversations and other such interactions with people we see for seconds or minutes, and may never see again. Canines too. It is possible to do this (with humans at least, if the other parties are not bots), via social media and even by comments sections such as this. But I think it is hard to beat the brief mutual escalation of lively and not really necessary conversation at checkouts, in queues or during a phone call to a call center for for some mundane purpose.

    I think the tribalism of left vs. right and the like is very much driven by social media exchanges between individuals. Likewise the ability for everyone to create text and/or videos and make them available to the entire world for free: blogs, YouTube and propagation of social media messages and links to videos by other users to the point of going “viral”.

    Pity the Facebook refusniks who, on hearing about a party mentioned on Facebook, via email from a Facebook user, who exchange emails with the party organiser to check they will be welcome and who drive for an hour and a half to said party a week later to find no-one there. Without the slightest effort, the acceptniks already knew the location had been changed days before.

    The brilliance of Facebook should be acknowledged. Firstly, they get billions of peoples’ attention without spending a cent on the risky and expensive business of generating “content” to attract such attention. Pity the poor movie, television, book, magazine and newspaper industries who were outflanked by this manoeuvre!

    Secondly they provide such convenient forms of communication that many people make it their primary means of staying in touch with friends and family, or even customers if they are a business. Then, if you are not in the network, you don’t find things out. So waverniks join, and become another tooth in the gearbox of the global Facebook machine, so increasing the network effects and leaving the remaining refusniks still less likely to be told of the new party location.

    Most people are too cheap to pay for a valuable service such as TV or social media and accept advertising as the price of the otherwise free service. But the grip of social media and more broadly Internet communications is far greater than that of TV, and involves two-way communication, including possibly extremely valuable, enjoyable and long-term significant communication. It also involves innumerable leaks of previously private information in ways which can typically not be seen or prevented.

    • The downside of social media is the realization by so many what curmudgeons have always known: most people are not very bright; they mostly follow herds rather than lead; their tastes are broadcast to them via social media or advertising; and what they have to say is often pablum or vile.

      • Circuses and Bread says

        @David of Kirkland

        Was there an upside to social media? If so, it missed my notice. What I see in social media is a multiplying of the extremes effect. So extreme stupidity, extreme amorality, and extreme ignorance tend to be more apparent.

        I disagree with regards to most people not being very bright. There are certainly boorish, ignorant, and immoral people in society. I don’t think it’s “most” though. And you have to define “bright.” Do you mean IQ? Wealth? Happiness? Moral standards? I have no doubt that many and perhaps most Quillette readers view those who refrain from voting as ignorant or morally deficient. I on the other hand commend those same people as unsung heroes, as societal stabilizers. So you see, perspective matters.

  7. Robin Whittle says

    It is 33 years since Neil Postman’s critique of TV: Amusing Ourselves to Death. My copy’s cover has an image of Ronald Reagan with a Bozo the Cloud red nose. https://youtu.be/FRabb6_Gr2Y?t=591

    “We have a new technology, used in different ways in different parts of the world, . . . that in its American expression, tends to suppress, undermine and otherwise degrade what we call literate, analytic, rational discourse.”

    There is an industrial complex (mass and social media) casting a global net for attention-grabbing material. The quantity of this stuff dwarfs the individual and the net covers at least 10 million times more people than the net we evolved to cope with in hunter-gatherer days, such as ten bands of about 70 people.

    Max Nordau’s 1892 “Degeneration” (in English translation): http://www.gutenberg.org/files/51161/51161-h/51161-h.htm

    “Let us now consider how these formidable figures arise. The 18,000 new publications, the 6,800 newspapers in Germany, desire to be read, although many of them desire in vain; the 2,759 millions of letters must be written; the larger commercial transactions, the numerous journeys, the increased marine intercourse, imply a correspondingly greater activity in individuals. The humblest village inhabitant has to-day a wider geographical horizon, more numerous and complex intellectual interests, than the prime minister of a petty, or even a second-rate state a century ago. If he do but read his paper, let it be the most innocent provincial rag, he takes part, certainly not by active interference and influence, but by a continuous and receptive curiosity, in the thousand events which take place in all parts of the globe, and he interests himself simultaneously in the issue of a revolution in Chili, in a bush-war in East Africa, a massacre in North China, a famine in Russia, a street-row in Spain, and an international exhibition in North America. A cook receives and sends more letters than a university professor did formerly, and a petty tradesman travels more and sees more countries and people than did the reigning prince of other times.”

  8. TarsTarkas says

    I think the anonymity is a big part of the reason for the total incivility found on social media. People call each other and entire cohorts of people names and slurs that they would never dream of doing if they were physically interacting with them. It is far too easy to treat others on social media tribally rather than individually. Which is advantageous to those who desire to slice and dice society up into individual grievance units the better to claw their way to power with.

  9. Social media generally demands that answers are short (and so lacking in nuance) and quick (and so rushed and often ill-thought-out). It demands the former both because long posts tend not to be read and because the media itself may limit the number of characters. It demands the latter because a high turnover means that you must respond quickly or get lost in the flood.

    This is far from healthy. It is almost as if Social Media were intended to start fights…

  10. Benjamin Perez says

    Social media: I used to think that social media was barely either (the shallowest manifestation of the former utilizing—“consuming”—the lowest materializations of the latter)—but now I’m pretty sure that the latter actually comes at the expense of the former; that it’s really the former that’s being consumed (digested, decomposed) by the latter. In the end, there might only be media; at the end, even worse.

  11. I’ll propose something that is probably a case in at least some instances, but I make no claims that it’s “the cause” of social media use.

    People are afraid to talk to people in their real life. I think they would prefer to, but their social calculus module tells them its a bad idea. Sometimes this is because they have ideas they should keep to themselves (because they aren’t very good). Other times their ideas are fine but they fall outside the Zeitgeist of their social situation.

    I ask sometimes why social media isn’t pulling apart, say, Japan. Yes they use it for all sorts of vapid things like here, but it hasn’t caused some kind of political or cultural meltdown. Perhaps that’s because there weren’t a bunch of irreconcilable differences unable to be discussed in society just below the surface. Social media allows things that exist to come out. It can’t create them in the first place.

  12. Nikolai says

    One thing that this article doesn’t cover is how fluid social media is. Facebook and Twitter have only been massive for 10 years, MySpace is still in living memory and young people (teens and children) are on other platforms. There also seems to be a movement in the past few years among older users to take a step back.
    As a form of media it’s still so new that we really don’t know how it will turn out.

  13. My dissertation involved interpersonal communication and one bit of the background research that sticks to mind dealt, if I recall, with media richness theory and applications to negotiation. The research found that people behave differently based upon media richness with face to face resulting in mutually beneficial/acceptable results in negotiation where asynchronous text-only was the worst (aka, social media). The deeper evaluation indicated that in face to face (and even visual like teleconference) that parties built a relationship and as a result changed their communication and negotiation style consistent with some conflict avoidance strategies. In async/text-only mediums (email) there was no concern about conflict and so negotiation fell apart with neither side willing to budge and making a “first to blink loses” outcome versus a mutually acceptable one.

  14. Matthew says

    Something to consider is the one-to-many nature of social media, which is the opposite of most real-world interactions, which are one-to-one. I see Twitter, Facebook, and the like as the digital equivalent of standing on a soapbox, screeching as loudly and vulgarly as you can so you can draw as much attention from as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. It is unhealthy, to say the least, for the popular and unpopular alike. Social media disincentivizes delay, reflection, responding to people’s emotions appropriately, in-depth argumentation and discussion. It actively discourages users from doing pretty much anything but generate clickbait.

    I recall Joe Rogan saying that he does his podcasts the way he does specifically to remove the one-to-many aspect; it is an individual conversation with one or two people.

  15. TofeldianSage says

    I will add one more cause that the author barely touched on: television is now all but unwatchable.

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