It had been one of those perfect summer days. I’d just got home from a day-trip to a near-by beach, the kids had had a blast, the wife was happy, I was happy. I decide to open up one of my social media feeds to unwind from the drive home, only to see photos of a school friend enjoying a day at the beach at some exotic locale, with calm crystal clear water and sand as white as snow. Suddenly my local beach didn’t seem quite so special, the happiness of a moment before was replaced by a pang of envy and sadness that I wasn’t jet setting around the globe. (wait, what do you mean this example isn’t that relevant right now? oh, because of the… I get you). Or how about, you just finished a good workout, and feeling pumped you head onto Instagram looking for some tips to get the most out of your next workout; instead you’re confronted with videos of half-naked fitness models doing circus tricks. Suddenly instead of feeling accomplished you are wondering if your workout was even worth it.
Or maybe you logged into Facebook early morning and saw a friend posting something stupid, and a lot of mutual friends agreeing with them. So instead of concentrating and getting your work done, all you can think about is how to craft the perfect comment that will convince them all of your point of view, but it doesn’t work, and now you’re in a flame war, burning bridges and at the end of the day you have a few less friends and you didn’t get anything done, and now you really are sad. This happened to me one too many times and I got to thinking: why does it sometimes feel like social media wasn’t designed as a way to keep in touch with geographically distant friends and family, but rather as a way to ruin our days and make us sad. And suddenly I realized that it actually was designed that way. Why would they want it to do that? For the dollar, dollar bills y’all! Ch-Ching!
Now I’m not saying the people who created social media platforms actually did this intentionally, they probably did intend their platforms to be ways to keep us connected to our friends. The problem is that social media platforms are expensive to run, so to maximize profits they wrote algorithms that would use machine learning to conduct extensive A/B testing on what content to show us to make the most money. Since most are supported purely through ad revenue, that is what the algorithms will maximize. This is why vapid and distressing content does so well, it is not because it what we actually signed up for, but it what makes them money. It’s not what we go on there to see, but what rakes in the cash.
So how does your unhappiness maximize ad-revenue? Well the first way that social media platforms charge their advertising clients is by the number of impressions. Every time you scroll past an ad they get paid. They more time they can keep you scrolling the more money they make. Sadness is one of the many ways that you get addicted to their platform. Since getting likes and comments makes you happy, if you are feeling down you are more likely to log back in for that brief dopamine hit from a notification. This is why distressing news stories spread so rapidly, they stay on your mind and keep you feeling sad long after you put down your phone, building that urge to pick it back up.
Now while being addicted to the platform maximizes your impressions, advertisers are charged more when you click on an ad, and this is where sadness comes into its own. You see the problem for them is that you logged into Facebook to see photos of your cousin’s baby, not to go shopping. Amazon doesn’t face this problem: you logged in specifically because you have a problem in your life and wanted to buy something that would solve it, they don’t have to do much to get you to make an impulse purchase of a complimentary product as you were already primed to buy. Not so for social media, you don’t go onto Facebook credit card in hand, your wallet might not even be in the same room. This means they are facing an uphill battle to not only get you to click on an ad, but even more so to actually make a purchase, and this is very important to their bottom line.
Although Facebook gets paid the same when you click anad whether you make a purchase or not, they know that a high conversion rate is what keeps their advertising clients happy and ready to spend even more. They know that if an ad on Facebook doesn’t generate any sales, that advertiser probably won’t buy ad space again. But you weren’t in the mood to shop, so how do they get you to run to grab your credit card to buy something you didn’t even know you needed 5 minutes ago, and without you reconsidering half way up the stairs? This is where psychological manipulation comes in. The psychology of impulse shoppers actually reads the same as a list of the negative effects of social media: status conscious, imaged concerned, increased anxiety, trouble controlling emotions, and unhappiness. Could it really be that social media causes all these problems to make a profit? Absolutely; now again I am going to be generous and assume the tech-gurus didn’t intend for this to happen. They just wrote the algorithm to find a way to maximize profits, and because algorithms don’t have a moral conscious, the algorithm just happened to discover presenting you with a feed that is psychologically harmful and turns you into an impulse shopper is the way to do that. Of course it is now the tech-gurus responsibility to reprogram the algorithms to find a morally acceptable, less harmful, way to maximize their profits, but that might be a while so let’s not hold our breath.
So in the mean time, what can we do to still enjoy the benefits of social media while still keeping our spirits up?
5 Step Action Plan to Social Media Happiness
The following is a list of ways to control your social media feed, rather than letting it control you. Each step builds on the previous.
1. Unfollow and Mute
Clean up your feed by unfollowing anyone who posts disturbing or salacious content. Instagram butt models won’t notice your absence. If it is someone you actually know and want to stay friends with, most social media platforms offer an option to “mute” them, so their posts do not appear in your home feed.
If the last thing you do at night is go on social media you are allowing whatever you just read to occupy your thoughts as you drift off. If you read something distressing right before trying to sleep this can not only disrupt your sleep but set you up to have a negative mood the next day. Giving yourself an hour or two before bed to decompress will not only let you sleep better but help to break your addiction. If you use an Iphone you can use the built in screen time app to limit access after a certain time.
3. Disconnect Days
Having one day a week where you do not log into social media, or even use your phone at all, can help break the negative addiction cycle, and even allow you to get to know those strangers who live in your house and refer to themselves as your “family”, whatever that means. It also helps to remind you that nothing bad happens if you don’t check your notifications, and that you don’t have to reply right away to every message. I would recommend doing this on Saturday or Sunday.
4. Block It
Use content controls to block access to social media from your phone. This is the stage I am on right now. I found that despite the previous 3 steps I was finding that stupid shit I had read on Facebook was still dominating my thoughts all day, and I was constantly reaching for my phone to check my feed. I was only going to do it for a week, but it helped my mood so much I have kept it blocked. I still have access to it on my PC, so I can check occasionally, but since I do not keep my PC in my pocket it has heavily curtailed my usage. If you work all day at a computer I would suggest blocking it on there too: if asked why just say you are trying to improve your mental health so you can become a more productive employee. I would also suggest having someone else hold the password to your content controls, so you cannot just unblock your access when severely tempted.
5. The Nuclear Option
If you find you are suddenly finding all these excuses to spend the whole day on your PC like it’s 2005 again, your addiction might be bad enough to warrant actually deleting your accounts. Good news: you can still keep up with your friends and family by calling them on the phone! Who knew, your Iphone isn’t just a Facebook access device, but can make direct voice calls to other people too?
I hope this blog post helps you improve your mental health.
Now how can I let my friends know about it without being hypocritical… hmm…